What is the ‘Leaderful’ Concept?

In our 21st Century organizations, we are going to need a different brand of leadership than we have had in our prior centuries that featured a mechanical form of organization. Our knowledge-based organizations will require that everyone share the experience of serving as a leader, not sequentially, but concurrently and collectively. In other words, leaders will serve at the same time and all together.

What should we call this new paradigm of leadership? Can you recall when you were with a team that was humming along almost like a single unit? Working together was a joy. Team members each had a particular functional role but seemed able implicitly to support each other when warranted. Any one of the team members could speak for the entire team. On occasion, you might have heard someone remark that this team was "leaderless." Let's not call it leaderless. Let’s call it “leaderful.”

To be leaderful, you need not be the designated position leader of your organization. If you work with others in any capacity, you are capable of exerting leadership. You don't have to be the CEO or top gun. Managers and employees in teams and organizations might find this account especially useful. Why? We're in an age of lean operations, of doing more with less. Many managers feel overwhelmed by technology or by contractors out to replace them. Meanwhile, as an employee, life isn't any easier. You're given assignments that are nearly impossible to accomplish in a specified time by supervisors who have far less understanding of the problem than you do. We desperately need to share leadership. If you're an executive, admittedly the process described here may require you to give up some control. But you'll gain far more. You'll rid your community members of a suffocating dependence, releasing them to contribute their natural leadership abilities.

But where do we start? How can we become more leaderful? How can we learn to transition from the conventional approach that most of us have grown up with? According to Joe Raelin in his Creating Leaderful Organizations (Berrett-Koehler, 2003), we can all become more leaderful, and fundamental to this shift is our adoption of what he refers to as the four c’s of leaderful practice (see the figure below). In contrast to the traditional tenets of leadership, that leaders are serial, individual, controlling, and dispassionate, in the leaderful organization, leaderful managers are concurrent, collective, collaborative, and compassionate.

  1. The first tenet, that leadership is concurrent, is perhaps the most revolutionary. What is being suggested is that in any organization, there can be more than one leader operating at the same time, so leaders willingly and naturally share power with others. Indeed, power can be increased by everyone working together. Since leaders perform a variety of responsibilities in an organization, it is pointless to insist that there be only one leader operating at any one time. For example, an administrative assistant, who "knows the ropes" and can help people figure out who is knowledgeable about a particular function, may be just as important to the group as the position leader. However, this same position leader does not “stand down” nor give up his or her leadership as members of the group turn their attention to the administrative assistant. The two of them as well as many others can offer their leadership at the same time.
  2. Leaderful leadership is not only concurrent, but is also collective. Since the assumption that there be only one leader in a group can be dispelled, we can entertain the view that many people within the group might be operating as leaders. The group is not solely dependent on one individual to mobilize action or make decisions on behalf of others. Decisions are made by whoever has the relevant responsibility. Leadership may thus emerge from multiple members of the team especially when important needs arise, be they preparing for a strategic mission, creating meaning for the group, or proposing a change in direction. Although someone may initiate an activity, others may become involved and share leadership with the initiator.
  3. Leaderful leadership is also collaborative. All members of the team, not just the position leader, are in control of and may speak for the entire organization. They may advocate a point of view that they believe can contribute to the common good of the community. Although they might be assertive at times, they are equally sensitive to the views and feelings of others and consider their viewpoints to be equally valid. They thus seek to engage in a public dialogue in which they willingly open their beliefs and values to the scrutiny of others. Their listening to others becomes rapt.
  4. Finally, leaderful managers are compassionate. By demonstrating compassion, one extends unadulterated commitment to preserving the dignity of others. Shareholders' views are considered before making a decision for the entire enterprise. Each member of the organization is to be valued regardless of his or her background or social standing, and all viewpoints are to be considered regardless whether or not they conform to current thought processes. In practicing compassion, leaders take the stance of a learner who sees the adaptability of the organization as dependent upon the contribution of others. Compassionate leaders also recognize that values are intrinsically interconnected with leadership and that there is no higher value than democratic participation. When people who have a stake in a venture are given every chance to participate in that venture – including its implementation – their commitment to the venture will be assured.

The Tenets of Leaderful Practice vs the Traditional Model