I was having a conversation recently with a colleague about the structure of companies. It was very much along the lines of a piece I have previously written about, talking to organisational structures, and how some of the best can flourish in a disrupted world.

Where the discussion turned interesting though was when I was asked what to do about the leadership teams in organisations that need to be transformed. Do we actually need them, in modern, truly responsive and flexible organisations?

The answer, it seems, is more complicated than one might think.

From a purist flat-structured, systems thinking organisation, one might suggest that leadership now no longer provides significant value to an organisation, and in fact, funnelling decisions through a single person could potentially act as a bottleneck for fast, iterative continuous improvement. However, taking such a black-and-white approach to organisational transformation is fraught with danger.

Leaders, as with any other kind of employee in your organisation, can hold a certain sway, gravitas, or respect from others around them. This respect, coupled with the knowledge that they may carry about your organisation and your customers can actually become invaluable in helping to guide any transformation efforts.

Behaviours may play a large part in a leader’s new place in such an organisation. Some may struggle with the transition from boss to colleague, and might feel like they have been robbed of their power or career for the sake of the organisation. In an extremely Closed system way, they will interpret this as a breaking of their rules. We know that this isn’t the case, and the amount of new responsibilities and challenges they are actually behind handed is extraordinary. However, it’s not what they might consider to be ‘the norm’, and must be managed delicately. It also needs to be acknowledged that this will not suit everyone. Many are afraid of change and this is might be too big of a change for them to accomodate. If that’s the case, holding onto them may damage them and the organisational work you’re trying to achieve.

Knowledge is what you might lose in such a transformation effort. In many traditional organisations, the leaders are the ones that have been around the longest. They have worked their way to the top of the heap after many years, toiling away in the machine and climbing the corporate staircase. They know it well, and carrying a lot of that legacy knowledge into a program can help to keep many efforts grounded and on track.

If these people leave, that knowledge is lost. You may not be able to stop them from leaving, and you may not actually want to as retaining strong opposition to the transformation effort may stifle what it is that you are trying to achieve for your customers. All that being said, the best way to try and keep that knowledge is to help these people who don’t want to (or simply cannot) stay to transition out of the organisation. Help them find a new job, encourage references to come forward, actively facilitate dialogue for them with new employers, and do what they need you to do. In return, you will find that their hand over of the knowledge that they are holding is far more free-flowing and the individuals and teams they are working with in the transition period will be blown away by their contributions. Who knows… they might even decide to stay and change of their own accord.

Any transformation effort that is growing into a flatter-structured organisation will require people to step forward and help those self-forming teams to actually form. In a way, we can still think of these people as leaders. In another way, they become contributing facilitators. However we might want to label them, it doesn’t really matter as their function is clear – it is the function of helping to bring people together in order to jointly contribute. And as long as they are leading and not managing, side by side – not up and down, the work will get done in a constructive, new-age, and cohesive manner.

We will always need leaders in our organisations. However, in a new-age organisation that is built around directly delivering on customer’s demands, flatly and with an embedded continuous improvement cycle and self-forming teams, that leadership role takes on new and very different life. They are thinkers and doers, and no one is better than anyone else – only different. Remembering this lesson will redefine leadership as we know it, in any organisation.

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