The prevailing belief today is that leadership is a scarce commodity in our organizations. What if this wasn’t true? Nature depends on self-organization to ensure life continues to exist and evolve. The self-organization in nature looks a lot like leadership in organizations. Self-organization is when people behave in the following ways:

  • People can initiate and organize their own work and learning.
  • People can align their contributions with the higher shared purpose of the organization and the community it exists in.
  • People are self-aware and use this self-awareness to build relationships, cooperation, and coordinated action to ensure conditions conducive to future generations of life.
  • Self-organization ensures active engagement with the organization. There is no apathy or waiting to be told when staff members self-organize.

Imagine your organization filled with individuals who perform this way every day. Would you say your organization was leader-full if this describes your employees?

Self-organization in nature is abundant

Nature depends on self-organization to create conditions that support life now and in the future. It isn’t structured as a hierarchy that depends on the direction from the top of the pyramid to move things along. Nature is a networked system that depends on the distributed actions of many actors to create coherence and evolution.  

If we thought of leadership as different from positional leaders, we would see that leadership is an emergent property that involves the actions of many individuals who I call agents of leadership. If we shifted our understanding of leadership to this framework and added in the lesson nature teaches us about self-organization, we can begin to see that leadership exists in abundance, but the way we design and manage our organizations creates conditions where we fail to see, develop and unleash leadership as a resource.

When Leadership is seen as rare

If leadership is seen as a scarce commodity then we use filters to assess leadership potential. These filters cause us to see potential for leadership in others. And the unconscious biases can make us blind to the many faces’ leadership has in an organization. When we think leadership is scarce, we think only a few can be chosen. We create constructed environments to train and develop leaders. We use the same unconscious bias to select people for these programs. No wonder we tend to replicate the look of leadership that currently exists in organizations and politics.

When leadership is seen as scarce, we justify higher compensation for positional leaders, they are perceived as more valuable because there are only a few that exist. The reality is that one person, no matter how skilled, can run a company alone. There are many people who contribute to the success of an organization, but when leadership is seen as rare, the success must be attributed to the person at the top because there are so few who can lead the company.  

When leadership is seen as abundant

However, when we think leadership is an abundant resource, like self-organization is in nature, we can see how leadership is deeply embedded in great teams, high performance organizations, and in thriving communities. When we look at these places where distributed leadership lives and grows, we see environments that naturally develop and encourage the unleashing of leadership in our workplaces.

Low expectations and a scarcity perspective on leadership

I am struck by the low expectations we have for our leaders. When a person in a position behaves in a way that transgresses against the moral frameworks that human beings have, we often shrug and don’t expect more. When a positional leader or politician puts self-interest ahead of the constitution or the higher purpose or mission of the organization, we don’t like it, but we often accept the behavior as normal. I wonder if this connected to the belief that only a few people can lead. If only a few can be leaders, then the bad behavior of organizational leaders can be tolerated because there may not be others to take their place.

When we shift to the assumption that leadership is abundant, then we can choose better leaders because there are lots of people to choose from. We could raise our expectations and only hire or elect people who are willing and able to serve the whole!

Dr. Kathleen E. Allen is the author of Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World (2019) and President of Allen and Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in leadership, innovation, and organizational change. She writes a blog on leadership and organizations that describes a new paradigm of leadership that is based in lessons from nature and living systems at www.kathleenallen.net

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