Our traditional leadership frameworks were primarily developed and written in the 20th century. The 1900s also saw the rise of organizations. So many of our deeply held leadership assumptions were informed and formed by this context. Hence, management and positional leadership blurred together since most of our research on leadership was done on business leaders.

The 21st century is experiencing a paradigm shift from a machine-driven organizing metaphor to a biological-driven one. This shift to a century of biology means that our organizations must be understood as living systems – dynamic evolving organizations that are filled with energy.  

This shift is why I wrote Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World (2018). In a century that works more like a biological system instead of a mechanistic one, we need to rethink everything about leadership. The areas we need to examine are the traditional leadership questions we use to build strategy and get things done in our organizations.  Here is another new leadership question for a living system.

Instead of Asking:

How do I influence individual actions?

Try Asking This:

How do I influence the field or the culture?

Our organizations are filled with the language of individual accountability; from job descriptions, annual goals, to performance reviews. Supervisors are focused on using organizational policies and procedures to influence and control the actions of individual employees. This is the legacy of a 20th century point of view.

Antiquated Organizational Patterns: A Culture of Individuals

The logic goes like this: if we think of our organizations as if they are machines, then the running of the machines depends on the working parts of the machines. If the parts are defective, then we replace them. The organization, like the machine, is the sum of its parts. Because of this logic trail, the way to guarantee results and productivity is to focus on the parts – the individual employees in the organization. If they do what they are responsible for, then the organization will run.

This way of thinking had many implications that evolved over time. For example, it spawned the phrase span of control – which asked the question, how many people can a manager supervise and still be effective.  Behind this phrase was the assumption that the manager’s role was to get things done through their direct reports and to do that, they needed to be able to influence and control their employees.

This led to a large expenditure of time and energy in supervision. If there was a problem, the focus was on finding out who wasn’t doing their part. Identifying who to blame became part of the focus. Assigning blame was important because the “part” needed to be fixed or replaced to solve the problem.

We have all worked in an organization where shifting the blame became deeply woven into the organizational politics. Often, replacing the person who wasn’t doing their job didn’t solve the problem.

The  Gravitational Pull of an Improved Company Culture

In the living organizations of the 21st century, the focus shifts from controlling the individual to influencing the culture that surrounds the employees in the organization. Gravity is an invisible field that shapes all our daily interactions. It holds our feet to the ground, it shapes how much we can lift, and it draws water toward sea level. It doesn’t hold the person accountable to keep their feet on the ground. Gravity creates a set of organizing limits on behavior. A healthy organizational culture has the same effect on shaping individual behavior. As a kid, I used to come home and talk about how other kids could do this or that. My mom would say that may be ok for them, but we are Erskine’s (maiden name) and we don’t do that. The culture of my family overrode peer behavior.

Our organizational cultures have a similar effect. They provide invisible “force fields” that shape our behavior, expectations, and standards that we measure ourselves against. Influencing an organizational culture is a much more effective way of influencing many employees. A living system is constantly evolving, learning, and experimenting. Things are complex and mutually shaping. A living organization is constantly adapting.  To constantly focus on controlling individual behavior is wasteful in this environment. It is much more effective to focus on the larger organizing principles that will shape people’s behavior when managers aren’t looking as well as when they are.

A body in motion is easier to keep in motion. The focus on controlling the individual interrupts the natural rhythm of the living organization. When lots of managers are focused on controlling the individuals they supervise the organization as a living system is disrupted and this behavior interferes with the employee’s ability to learn to initiate and organize their own work.

 

Dr. Kathleen E. Allen is the author of Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World (available for pre-order on Amazon) and President of Allen and Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in leadership, innovation, and organizational change. www.kathleenallen.net