Bob Lieberman's Blog

Commentary and Tools For Empowering Change

Collaborative Leadership Development

One of the hallmarks of an effective leader is the ability to develop more leaders, as collaboratively as possible. This is because, as organizations grow, several challenges emerge that demand more widely distributed leadership:

  1. Increasing work volumes exceed the capacities of individual leaders to fulfill their current responsibilities
  2. Individuals require new challenges and expanded responsibilities in order to develop their careers
  3. New, unfamiliar responsibilities emerge due to the nature of scale and of organizational evolution

It's tempting to address these challenges with software tools, and most organizations try that first. Some favorites include:
  • Tools that automate contacts, reporting, and logistics – to address capacity issues
  • Software applications replacing outdated antiques – to address career development issues
  • Business intelligence tools – to address scale and evolutionary issues.

Tools are shiny, concrete, and absorbing. Sure they cost money, but they don't require us to be different people – just to do different things. It's little wonder we spend so much time building and feeding them. I'm not deploring software tools at all. But we have to recognize that they they only address growth's demands for efficiency. And reliance on them only postpones the inevitable reckoning of a growing organization with its need for better communication.

Communication is the elephant in the room. It produces nothing tangible, so it is easily ignored. It's so pervasive, like water to a fish, that it is invisible and unexamined. And we all think we're good at it. Communication is the sharing of concepts, ideas, plans, understandings, hopes and fears, ambitions, hardships and heartaches, mutual appreciation, and recognition. Most of that sharing can't be done with brief messages (email), and the most important part of it is totally non-verbal. 

So at its core, communication is a personal relationship between two people. That means that leadership is about communication, which is about relationships. This may explain why leadership development is neglected in a growing organization. It is a relationship training responsibility that's not in most people's job description. The capability is not often in their repertoire. It is a creative responsibility that nourishes and cultivates the creative capacity of the protege. Among other things, it requires the full-spectrum of leadership qualities: awareness, judgment, influence, and perspective. Organizational leaders tend to be strong in influence and weak in the other three qualities. Most are uncomfortable with creativity, and some don't recognize its role in their organization. 

So we have deficiencies in ownership and deficiencies in capability. And yet leadership development is an urgent imperative, because as an organization grows linearly, the need for communication grows exponentially (see Fred Brooks, The Mythical Man Month). 

Facing that exponential challenge, the best way to develop leadership skills is viral. Viral leadership development involves leaders spreading leadership skills and responsibility around and down the org chart at every opportunity. This approach is a refinement of empowerment, and it's a totally different way of allocating work than delegation. Delegation has the limited objective of allocating responsibility for specific tasks. Communication is impersonal. It is a one-shot deal, and requires little concern for developing the leadership skills of the delegatee. Viral empowerment seeks to develop leadership skills, with the task serving as a learning opportunity. Communication is personal and a part of the a mentoring relationship.

Delegation can look like a sure thing because you know the tasks will get done. But it doesn't contribute to meeting the challenges of organizational growth. For a leader facing the ever-changing environment of organizational growth, it's tempting to see only the quantitative challenges. Take some time to see the qualitative!