Everyone is a Leader

Traditionally, we think of leaders in three ways:

 

  1. Those who lead organisations or some part of them in an official capacity;
  2. Those who lead teams; and
  3. Those who unofficially lead groups.

 

Leaders, by virtue of their position and expertise, bear the responsibility to give those in their charge vision, inspiration, and courage to follow them, and to help the organisation achieve its mission.

Team leaders are responsible for a smaller entity. Their task is to lead a group of people who have been selected specifically to achieve a discrete purpose. Although what they do contributes to the greater organisation, their success is based on their ability to do what they’ve been tasked to do collectively, not individually as it is in a group. (Remember that all teams are groups, but not all groups are teams.)

Unofficial group leaders exist primarily where there is weak leadership and/or management from those who hold official positions. Unless employees have been given a great deal of autonomy, they need direction from those who are in charge. And where that guidance is lacking, unofficial group leaders often emerge to fill the gap. That’s not a good thing because it further weakens the influence of those in official positions.

Loyalties form towards unofficial leaders such that any attempt by official ones to recover what’s been lost will create animosity and resistance because it will be seen that the formal executives abdicated their responsibilities in the first place. For this and many other reasons, leaders and managers who are known to be weak or who refuse to fulfill their assigned roles need to be replaced as soon as possible so that employees have consistent direction, and their loyalties remain with the formal senior leadership and management roles.

 

One thing, however, that the lockdown has done is to bring to the fore the fact that everyone now is a leader. The world of work has been gradually progressing in that direction for a number of years, but recent events have accelerated it, and now the evidence is too strong to ignore.

 

How did that happen?

When working from home became the norm, it removed a great deal of the authority that leaders and managers could exercise over their employees. When everyone was together, then there was a physical relationship among them; but that was lost when they were told to stay home.

When employees work from home, they tend to behave differently than when they’re in the workplace. They still get their work done, but usually in less time.

But there’s more to it than that.

For example, except for when you’re on a video call, there’s no dress code. Working hours are flexible. And unless people are noticeably negligent, it’s impossible to know how they use their time, not that it matters as long as they fulfill their responsibilities.

But the point is that when your employees are out of your sight for days, weeks, or even months, then that alone is sufficient to diminish your effective authority.

It’s been said that nature abhors a vacuum. So does power. As you’ve seen, where there’s an absence of formal power, informal power rushes in to fill it. The sudden and prolonged absence of your authority in the working lives of ordinary employees has caused them to fill the gap themselves.

This, too, has made everyone a leader.

 

Ever since there have been entrepreneurs, people have been in the habit of leading themselves. They had to decide when to get up, what work to do, when and how to do it, when to take breaks, and how long they should be, and when to quit for the day. It was always up to them to balance their work and their lives.

The lockdown has also made all employees leaders because they, too, have had to decide for themselves most of the things that only entrepreneurs and those in the C-suite have done in the past. In other words, the organisational depth of leadership has been reduced to one. From the mid-1980s to the mid-‘90s, hierarchies were flattened because middle managers were made redundant. This time around, the head has been chopped off.

 

What does this mean for the future of the workplace?

For one thing, it means that there’s no returning to “normal.” A people that tastes real freedom, and who understand the difference between it and not having it, will rarely choose to have their liberties restricted again. The exceptions occur where the cause is more important than the sacrifices. An example of this is the Armed Forces, where people give up considerable personal freedoms in order to defend the nation.

 

In all other circumstances, however, individual freedoms - leading oneself - will trump attempts to limit it, and employees who have become accustomed to working from home now know what that feels like.

 

What does this mean for you as an officially designated leader or manager?

It means that rather than trying to impose the same limits on people that you had before, that you should instead embrace these changes and use them to help people lead themselves.

It can feel like an awesome responsibility to have that thrust upon you, so much so that many people in the past have resisted entrepreneurialism, and that’s because they didn’t want to think about all that that meant. They wanted to leave work at work and keep their home life separate. And that’s a good thing, even for entrepreneurs. But many of those who’ve had to learn to lead themselves so that they can work from home have also discovered that they prefer it. And so it’s incumbent upon you to help them to do so.

 

In your new role, you should show them how to lead themselves by how you lead yourself. There’s never been a greater opportunity to lead by example, and that’s because they now know that they have to. It’s no longer an option.

 

You need to inspire them to lead themselves

There will be some who’ll be anxious to relinquish this responsibility, though you mustn’t let them. They will have grown personally, as well as professionally, and that process must continue, whether they carry on working from home or not. In other words, they must carry on leading themselves. The end of the lockdown can’t be an excuse to stop.

 

You need to provide opportunities for them to mentor each other

Mentoring is an immensely rewarding experience and another opportunity to grow. Often, it means just listening, which is a valuable thing to do.

When you work from home, the isolation itself can be debilitating. People need people. Even the most solitary among them need some contact with others. It’s why solitary confinement is considered to be cruel and unusual punishment.

They need connections, too. And you can help them to make and maintain them by providing opportunities for them to mentor one another.

This is especially necessary for extroverts - those who draw their strength from interacting with others. When those connections are cut-off, then those people can lose their way. For them, the working life becomes meaningless. It can be almost as devastating as redundancy or retirement.

It’s another reason why you have to help them learn to lead themselves.

 

You need to open the channels of communication

And you need to allow them to contact whoever they need to whenever it suits them, and without getting your permission first because when you lead yourself, that’s what you do. The rules for them can’t be different than what they are for you.

This may take some getting used to on your part, but this is how you can help employees to grow.

The way that you handle all of this will either strengthen their trust in you, or weaken it. And so that means that you’ll have to work even harder to be transparent and authentic because many of the cues that you relied on before have now been lost. You can’t just assume that people know what you mean. You almost have to exaggerate your intentions so that there’s no misunderstanding. That doesn’t mean that you have to be more forceful. Instead, it means that you can’t be subtle.

Subtleties such as nudge, nudge, wink, wink are easily missed on a video call.

To get an idea of what this is like, record yourself on Zoom or QuickTime or some other video platform. Speak as if you’re having a normal conversation at work. Take a break for 15 minutes or so - long enough to get it out of your mind - and then watch it, this time as the person who’s being spoken to. You’ll notice how deadpan you look compared to how you felt when you made the recording.

That’s how people see you, whether it’s on a video or listening to you on the phone. And it’s all come about because they haven’t seen you in the flesh for so long. The lockdown has caused them to forget the cues that you once relied on.

If you don’t appear trustworthy and transparent - authentic, in other words - then people won’t follow you or your example. You won’t inspire or motivate them either.

 

In the new world of work - post lockdown - everyone is a leader of themselves. And your new role is to encourage them to do more of it.

When you do this, you’ll get more done, and the organisation itself will become more efficient and effective as well.

 

Organisational leadership has been devolved to every individual employee, and each one of them has had to learn how to lead themselves in recent months. This has liberated them in ways that many of them never imagined by giving them freedom from long commutes, noisy offices, and constant interruptions. They won’t be in a hurry to give up those things, nor should they have to. It’s up to you to see to it that they can continue to be productive by leading themselves because they’ve grown accustomed to it and enjoy it.

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