Distributed leadership – if not now, when?

Effective leadership is distributed leadership. We need sensemakers, relaters, visionaries, and inventors. And we need them all working together.

Alon Shklarek by

Who came up with the idea of going to our balconies and windows in the evenings to salute our heroes of the hour, or to perform ‘distributed concerts’ to show our gratitude and raise moral? Who led the ‘rainbow’ movement that has brightened up our streets and our sense of community with home-made rainbows appearing from our windows? Nobody knows. But it wasn’t a President, Prime Minister or CEO! These are but two examples of ‘distributed’ leadership.

Leadership is a team sport

This isn’t a new idea, but it is an idea whose time has come. I’ve written before about how leadership is a team sport – because no one individual ever embodies all the qualities it takes to lead effectively. That’s all the more true when we are faced with something like the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a crisis that demands a concerted response from politicians, business leaders, scientists, and so many professionals in our critical infrastructure. More than that, it requires the general public to buy into this response and take responsibility – even leadership.

This illustrates the first pillar of distributed leadership: it is emergent and arises from the interaction between individuals. The second pillar is openness. Distributed leadership is not exclusive or limited. Instead, it invites anyone who has something to offer to step up and lead. For example, over a weekend in March, the German government hosted #WirVsVirus, the world’s largest-ever hackathon with around 43,000 participants jointly working to develop over 1,500 collaborative solutions for the challenges posed by COVID-19 – in only 48 hours! By way of comparison, the previous largest hackathon according to the Guinness World Records had ‘just’ 3,245 participants. The spectacular size, speed, and outcome of the #WirVsVirus initiative emphasize the first two pillars of distributed leadership. At the same time, they are a great illustration of the third pillar: it is all about the expertise of the many, not the few.

We need different types of leaders

Distributed leadership is dynamic, relational, inclusive and collaborative. It has to be. Now more than ever, we need not just one kind of leader, but many. In their excellent HBR article ‘In praise of the incomplete leader’, the authors suggest a model of ‘distributed leadership’ based on four types of leaders with four respective capabilities: sensemaking, relating, visioning and inventing. Let’s think about those in the context of effective leadership in the current crisis:

  • We need Sensemakers: the virologists, epidemiologists, mathematical modelers, and others who understand the facts and – in the truest meaning of the word – ‘make sense’ of that information and the context we are working in.
  • We need Relaters: from those closest to us who give us love and support, to neighbors organizing local initiatives to help with groceries, to the news anchor-women who always closes the bulletin with a heart-warming ‘Together, we can do it’. It is the relationships that we maintain, nurture, and can rely on, that offer us comfort in this challenging situation. They give us hope and the strength we need through those difficult times.
  • We also need Visionaries: not just politicians, but business leaders, team leaders at all levels, parents, and family members. They are the ones who can create a compelling picture of the future. A vision that unites us behind the extraordinary measures we are taking.
  • And, of course, we need Inventors to develop new ways to achieve that vision. But these are not only the obvious ones like the scientists working to develop vaccines and therapies. Suddenly, we take concepts such as ‘social distancing’ or ‘flattening the curve’ for granted. But those concepts did not invent themselves. They came from creative thinkers taking the lead.

Effective leadership is distributed leadership

The COVID-19 pandemic is a global crisis of frightening dimensions. But in response to it, we are witnessing the emergence of ever more leaders. Sensemakers, Relaters, Visionaries and Inventors. And we realize that no one leader alone has what it takes to deal with the challenges we face. We need all of them. And we need all of them working together, co-creating together.

Effective leadership is distributed leadership. It unleashes the potential and harnesses the talents of all types of leaders and followers. It brings out the best in us, as individuals, in our families, in our teams, in our organizations, and society as a whole.

We shouldn’t need a crisis to embrace the concept of distributed leadership. But if not now, when will we ever do so? Imagine what we can achieve in all areas of our personal and professional lives if we incorporate these principles of co-creation. Not just right now, but once we’ll step out from our front doors and balconies and back into ‘normality’!