Are Leaderless Organizations Inevitable? Some Say ‘Yes’

By August 17, 2015Article

Articles and books have been pouring out, arguing that going leaderless is on the horizon. To be sure, they’re not calling for eliminating all organizational leadership, but rather spreading leadership around using peer councils or cycling different people through leadership roles for short periods of time. Whatever the proposal, the prediction is that the way organizations have created leadership structures is going to change.

We should pay attention to this leaderless trend. There’s a certain amount of truth to the transformation of leadership already going on before our eyes. As we think about it, we can spot four forces aligning that could very well dismantle the traditional leadership hierarchy.

First, the drive to flatten overblown hierarchies has already become a reality in many organizations. Whereas companies often had 7 to 10 levels of hierarchy between the lowest level line employee and a C-suite executive, today many have just 3 or 4. There’s a clear move away from the silos in large organizations that end up creating inefficiencies, political fiefdoms, and conflicts over resources. Great examples of this trend are evident in the tech industry throughout Silicon Valley, where today’s startups may have just 2 or 3 levels of management—and no one complains or feels that something is missing.

Technology itself is the second major driver toward leaderlessness. It is easy today to set up peer-to-peer networks that facilitate group communication, learning, information sharing, and decision-making—far more efficient and faster than the traditional command and control hierarchy. Many organizations are also deriving huge benefits from crowdsourcing platforms that solicit ideas and solutions from all employees and even customers—yet another chink in the armor of so-called “experts” or appointed leaders who had held these roles for themselves.

The diversity movement is a third force playing a role in pushing organizations towards leaderlessness. As organizations become increasingly global in their cultures and their customer base, the value of rotational leadership and diversity-based peer councils becomes not just more palatable but also leads to smarter decision-making. There’s a certain fatigue, to be sure, with boards and C-suites composed of the same ole, same ole group of mostly males who hang onto their power from a perch high above. This form of governance is under pressure to change.

Finally, the demographics of the Millennial generation may be the final straw in transforming organizations into leaderless ones. Growing up to believe more than any other generation that every person has value, blind to race and ethnicity, willing to share power and collaborate if it helps change the world, this generation is ripe to abandon many elements of the traditional organization in favor of new paradigms of leadership and conducting business.

The Implications for Your Organization

Each organization clearly needs to make its own decisions about the value of moving towards a leaderless style of management. At SyNet, we are neither recommending nor critiquing whether the leaderless format is right for any company. Our position, however, is that we see the nature and function of leadership as needing to change. We are proponents of Awareness-based Leadership that helps leaders become more mindful and empathic, two qualities that are necessary to foster engagement, creativity, and innovation among people. We are committed to the notion that every person in an organization has tremendous potential to take greater responsibility for their role and to contribute ideas and wisdom. Our management and leadership development programs are centered around self-reflection and empowerment, helping people become the best they can be. We believe these attitudes are the keys to creating the successful organizations of the future.