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Embracing distributed leadership

October 7, 2022

“Smart organizations are shifting from command-and-control leadership to distributed leadership”. That’s what suggests MIT Sloan researchers. Professor Deborah Ancona defines the new model as collaborative, autonomous practices managed by a network of formal and informal leaders across an organization.

The study examined the different leadership approaches of two firms rolling out sustainability initiatives companywide. According to the paper, the distributed model gives people autonomy to innovate and uses noncoercive means to align them around a common goal. 

“Top leaders are flipping the hierarchy upside down,” said MIT Sloan lecturer Kate Isaacs, who collaborates with Ancona on research about teams and nimble leadership.

“Their job isn’t to be the smartest people in the room who have all the answers,” Isaacs said, “but rather to architect the gameboard where as many people as possible have permission to contribute the best of their expertise, their knowledge, their skills, and their ideas.”

The authors prepared a checklist to help leaders avoid pitfalls while moving to a distributed leadership:

  1. “When people at lower levels of the firm have ideas on new strategic objectives that have been vetted and tested, let those people participate in leading the change process.
  2. Give people a say in matching themselves with roles. Engage in two-way dialogue with potential candidates to consider who has the passion, knowledge, networks, and time availability to succeed — regardless of a person’s role or level in the organizational hierarchy.”
  3. Have an honest conversation with potential team members about their capacity to implement and what they can commit to the team.
  4. Provide coaching and learning opportunities so that people can practice the decision-making, entrepreneurial activity, and influencing skills needed to work in this mode of operating. Provide opportunities for employees to meet one another and network across the firm.
  5. Remember that moving away from a command-and-control mode of operating does not mean that senior leaders cease to play a role in the change process. They are the architects who facilitate and enable entrepreneurial activity.
  6. Achieving change will require some combination of command-and-control and cultivate-and-coordinate styles.”

Source: MIT Sloan