What does good leadership look like? Over the years, I have given much thought to the concept of leadership, specifically the contrast between traditional, top down, concentrated leadership and that of a more egalitarian, distributed leadership style often reflective of “flatter” organizations. The more thought I put into it and experience I gain, the more benefits I see to distributed leadership, both for the individual and for organizations. In order to achieve this structure, there must be an awareness and conscious planning effort as it is an investment in team members and the firm.
Traditional vs. Distributed Leadership
Developed nearly two decades ago with examples and studies on the topic, distributed leadership is not a new construct, but it has seemed to be on the rise in recent history. Throughout my 40+ year career, I’ve worked under and as a part a variety of leadership systems, experiencing the pros and cons of both. While working in a corporate, top down structure, which was very much the norm at the start of my career, I noticed that this approach was very linear. The greater proportion of communication was what I would describe as “one to one,” instead of “one to many,” or “many to many.” By that, I mean both the organizational structures and available technologies enabled this siloed work and communication style, with in-person meetings or telephone calls being the most common form of communication.
I believe distributed leadership is effective, but recognize that it does have limitations. Distributed leadership is beneficial to the extent permitted by the rules and regulations of an industry and supervision of work. For instance, Architecture is a regulated profession and there are laws that govern supervision of work. Certain tasks shouldn’t be distributed but maintained by the “Professional in Responsible Charge” as mandated by law. Today’s mindset is that there is a downside to not giving more people responsibility, ownership and a voice, particularly younger generations who will one day be leaders and will need the skills that go along with it. At EUA we try to balance maintaining leadership control of what must be maintained with staff mentoring and team development as a priority as an investment in ourselves and our future. We believe distributed leadership is not to be confused with delegation; there is an element of training and empowerment that makes it distinct from just a “delegate and review process.”
I like to try to keep a pulse on ways in which my industry, as well as the culture at large, is evolving. I believe I am not alone in my appreciation for the recent growth in distributed leadership over top down; the world is gravitating more and more towards the desire to have meaning in our work and be a part of something bigger than ourselves. I think if you were to ask younger generations specifically, they would say they want to be given responsibilities and opportunities to grow. People do their best work when their leaders believe they can, in the context of proper guidance and review.
When distributed leadership is implemented, collaboration happens and multiple voices are heard from different perspectives; nimbleness and delivery of service are improved, as well as the intangible, long-term investments in a team. When you nurture people to make solid decisions grounded in standards where creativity is fostered, everyone benefits. Think of the benefits of collective minds that contribute to the practice of architecture, improving design, the built environment, client and community relationships and more. Great opportunities for creativity and growth happen when people are given independence and latitude. To me, that’s exciting.
When a new person joins an organization, regardless of his/her tenure in the profession, his/her ideas need to be heard and welcomed. The longer he or she works with that entity, the more he/she will be influenced by that culture and thinking (some call this “groupthink”). His or her original ideas and creativity may very well have great impact on changing the course of the collective enterprise when allowed to be heard.
Years ago, it was more likely that an individual would spend their entire career in one organization, learn and grow and advance and, in some cases, be happy and professionally self-actualized. I realize this is not quite as much the norm today for a variety of well known and documented reasons; today the expectation is that individuals will not only change organizations throughout their career but even change careers entirely. I think this is exciting as it demands broad education and skill sets as well as the nimbleness to change and adapt. It also makes a distributed leadership approach more likely to be effective with individuals from broader perspectives and backgrounds.
Challenges to Distributed Leadership
What of the challenges of this approach? Most organizations must have a level of hierarchy and responsibility because of their mission or “public” accountability. Managing project deadlines, quality control, consistency, legal requirements and financials are all part of the challenge of any organization, be they hierarchical or flatter. Distributed leadership can be challenging if an organization doesn’t have clearly defined and communicated roles and responsibilities, or if their team members aren’t willing or able to “throw the ball around.” Successful distributed leadership demands team work, unselfishness, doing one’s part and constantly communicating what other team members need to know to advance their work. The size and type of an organization is also a factor to consider as the work flow may or may not benefit from this approach.
So where does this leave us? I believe that any organization can be more efficient, more productive and can be a better workplace in part due distributed leadership. In an age where we juggle work life balance, sharing the load in a true teamwork approach is what distributed leadership is all about.