What Leadership at Every Level Looks Like
It’s a catchy phrase, and it’s a nice idea. Most will head bob at the notion of leadership at every level. Few think that it’s a bad idea.
So why don’t we see more of it?
It may be that we don’t have high-profile examples. Perhaps it’s that there’s no clear, plug-and-play model with delineated steps and measurable outcomes. Or maybe there’s no business imperative that’s apparent, and it’s just easier to coast with what’s already in place – the traditional hierarchy and reserved use of the term “leader” for a select few at the top of the org chart.
To break out of the outdated mold, let’s take a closer look at examples, a model, and the business imperative for making a shift to leadership at every level.
Examples of Leadership at Every Level & Why It’s So Important
There are far more examples of leadership at every level than you might imagine.
Healthcare case studies and examples abound. This is an industry that gets it! Distributed leadership in nursing, service delivery, and patient care demonstrate the benefits of leadership at every level. In the Institute of Medicine Future of Nursing Report, researchers discovered that nurses routinely demonstrate leadership behaviors that positively impact patient outcomes. However, over 50% of nurses did not recognize their own leadership. With self-awareness for these nurses, the study concluded, healthcare is transformed dramatically.
Like nurses, many non-managerial employees in a wide variety of industries are charged with increasing quality and value in the services they deliver. Devising and implementing appropriate change strategies is essential. When individuals step in to make things happen, transformational change is realized. But when people don’t see themselves as leaders, they are less likely to take initiative and suggest changes or experiment for incremental improvements.
The same is true on sports teams. Over-reliance on a team manager or head coach inhibits performance. In the live time game, every player needs to make decisions and step into leadership (even momentarily) if the team is to play at its peak. When there are multiple leaders in a sports team, performance for all is improved and achievement proves the value.
Now think about every movie that’s based on a true story of heroism – Stand and Deliver, Argo, Selma, Moneyball, The King’s Speech, Hidden Figures, Spotlight, Schindler’s List, United 93, Apollo 13, The Blind Side… just to name a few. We recognize and admire people who step into leadership because it’s needed at some crucial juncture. They make incredible differences because they are willing to lead, even when they don’t have the title or authority.
In other words, we’re surrounded by examples of leadership at every level and of organic leadership emerging to meet a need.
Ennobling people throughout an organization by liberating their leadership eliminates bottlenecks, builds business acumen, accelerates change by increasing commitment and engagement, and gets problems handled quickly (before they spin out of control). Retention rates improve, productivity soars, expenses are reduced, customers are more satisfied, revenue increases, and profits grow.
These impacts are so profound that the needs for leaders at every level was identified by Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends as one of the 12 critical issues for business. 86% of respondents rated leadership development as “urgent” or “important.” The flattening of organizations, war for talent, and Great Resignation have all contributed to the “explosion in demand for leadership skills at every level.”
How Do You Make It Happen?
Start-ups and small businesses often start with a group of driven individuals who share a common vision and passionately work together to bring it to life. They are all leaders, unconcerned about title or position. They lead each other and feed on the energy and sense of purpose they share.
Over time, that small business grows. Formal roles are assigned, and a formal corporate structure is adopted. New people are hired for their experience and functional skills, not for their passionate commitment to the vision. To keep the business focused, the founders hoard the leadership responsibilities and may even micro-manage the newcomers.
It doesn’t take much time before a few of the original team members are no longer “feeling it.” The energy and passion have been replaced by bureaucracy and tasks that seem meaningless. When they leave, even more people are hired for their expertise. The organization’s technical proficiencies grow. But at what cost?
In the early stages, this is prevented by preserving the value of participative leadership where everyone’s input is genuinely valued and considered. Hiring for leadership abilities, training for continued leadership development, and creating experiences for everyone to take their turn at leading is the difference between the original company and the later version.
Getting back to the start-up mentality is possible for any organization or team that wants it. Just imagine what could happen if you went from 8 leaders (the people at the top of the org chart) to hundreds of leaders (every single employee). Reminder: we are NOT talking about management – be sure you know the differences between managing and leading.
These are the steps to liberate leadership at every level.
1. Deliberate focus, definition, and vision of what you’re going to do.
2. Goal setting related to culture change, employee engagement metrics, and number of people participating in leadership development opportunities.
3. Communication about the changes and reasons behind them.
4. Training on what it means to be a leader.
5. Reinforcement of what’s been offered in training. This includes genuine opportunities to lead and celebration of successes from leadership at every level. It also includes metrics for managers related to expectations for leadership development for their direct reports.
The leadership language, framework, and behaviors are the same for leaders at every level. The training springs from those common elements but will be different for various levels. Here’s the evidence-based curriculum we use to create well-rounded managers and leaders.
Self Empowered™ for self-leadership and those who do not have direct reports
Workplace Conversations for supervisors and managers
The Leadership Challenge® for those who are in management roles (or are preparing for them)
The Challenge Continues for deepening leadership capabilities and effectiveness
Executive coaching for senior managers who set the example for all
You don’t have to figure this out alone. We’ve been customizing leadership program design for over 25 years, and we have a variety of configurations to serve small and large groups alike. Our clients are usually surprised by the affordability and ease of our programs.
If you’re grappling with good intentions vs. actual results when it comes to leadership development, we can help with that, too. Here’s one common mistake that’s easily corrected --
Leadership at Every Level Is the Essence of Servant Leadership
Servant leadership is frequently misunderstood. The phrase “servant leader” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in a 1970 essay called “The Servant as Leader.” Greenleaf defined servant leaders as being driven to meet other people’s highest priority needs. He contrasted this to a self-focused paradigm of leadership where the leader is elevated and out of touch with people.
In that original construct, the hallmarks of servant leadership were described as:
The persons being “served” grow as persons in their professional pursuits
They become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, and more likely to serve others in the same way (supporting other people’s growth).
Making people on the frontline more independent and capable in their own right.
Here’s the original and full definition of servant leadership, crafted by Greenleaf:
A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people
and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally
involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,”
servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others
first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.
Greenleaf also said that servant leadership’s purposes are to enrich the lives of individuals, build better organizations and ultimately create a more just and caring world.
Servant leadership is NOT the misunderstood version so often touted in recent years.
Many self-professed servant leaders are managers who do work for their direct reports. With the best of intentions, these managers are attempting to spare their direct reports from difficult duties or taxing workloads. What they’re inadvertently doing is depriving employees of growth experiences, challenges that help them grow, and opportunities to shine.
That’s not what Greenleaf prescribed. Not even close. The outcomes of doing work for people is more disabling than enabling, more limiting than liberating, and more a disservice than a service to others.
Leadership at every level accomplishes the ideals of servant leadership. It’s what employees are asking for and what organizations need for long-term success.