The common view of workplace leadership has been to treat it as if it were like a Game of Thrones.
In the past there was one emperor, one king, ruling over the people. And today our organisations are led by one chief executive. It is often described as the “great-man theory of leadership”.
And with apologies for the gender bias label, it has remained as a dominant school of thought in leadership development for decades.
Our leaders are given large offices, pretty views and an elaborate chair, or throne, to sit on. From their throne they dispense wisdom and direction to employees.
The traditional leader’s tactic is “I will do all the thinking. You do all the doing.” They distribute the work to those beneath them while holding on to all the decision-making power.
This is a perfectly suitable approach for contexts where we know how things work. It is fine for workplaces where the patterns are familiar and repeated. In fact, it makes sense to place the individual with the most experience into that throne, asking them to deploy resources and direct the action. This is how the game has been played for some time.
But our professional environments are becoming ever more susceptible to sudden change. We saw this with the rise of the internet. We are seeing it again with the app economy and start-ups seeking to up-end legacy industries.
To set ourselves up with one leader making all the decisions implies they know what to do in turbulent times. It makes the organisation fragile to the miscalculations of one mind.
Smart leaders have the humility and self-awareness to understand they cannot possibly know what the next move should be.
The old game of thrones was to centralise the thinking and distribute the doing.
The new one is to decentralise the thinking and the doing.
Leaders retain big decisions and set the scope of work (for example: go study how 20-somethings manage risk). But they allow their teams to make minor decisions, working to a short repeating cycle of sense, then act.
Sense means paying attention to your local environment. What do you notice? What are customers doing? What are the weak signals hidden in the noise?
One hundred people doing this, in 100 local areas, is far more insightful than one individual sitting on the throne, well away from the field of action.
Act means to try things, small experiments that are safe to fail. An hour of time, a few hundred dollars, a small number of people involved.
The individual in the field does not need to write a business case or seek approval. They can just do it and learn from the process.
When your entire team is scanning the landscape, paying attention and trying small experiments, that is the fastest way to make sense of volatile environments.
It prepares them to mitigate threats when they arise and seize opportunities as they emerge.
The old game of thrones needs stability and predictable patterns. If you work in a world like that, then the old approach will do.
If your world has become complex and unpredictable then you may need to give the new game of thrones a try.
This article first appeared in The Australian on 23rd July 2016 here