Pericles, The First Citizen of Athens, c. 495 – 429 BC
Ideas for Leaders #014

Aligning the Organization to Let Leadership Happen

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Key Concept

Good leadership is the result of ‘shared work’, and shared work is achieved through a process of direction, alignment and commitment in an organization. Creating positive leadership is really about these factors, rather than about adopting a set of ideal characteristics. All members of an organization have a role in making leadership happen.

Idea Summary

Stepping away from the traditional, overwhelming lists of ideal characteristics for leaders, let’s examine how leadership actually happens. The ‘whole system’ perspective in this Idea, show us that leadership happens in the interactions and exchanges among people with shared work. Specifically, we can highlight three outcomes those interactions should yield: making direction, alignment, and commitment happen. In fact, we might say that the only way to know if leadership has happened is to look for the presence of these three outcomes.

Take the following scenarios:

  1. Senior management team of a hospital: staff members were asked to generate strategies with senior management to improve the hospital’s quality of care metrics. With shared direction and commitment to the initiative in every department and at all levels of the hospital, they were able to improve their standing to one of the top ten best in the US.
  2. Mid-sized European Company: in order to create efficiencies in the organization’s management hierarchies, the CEO integrated the HR, learning and development, and strategy departments into one unit. Though initially the VPs of these departments were hesitant and challenged the idea, during the course of further meetings they negotiated and eventually reached a breakthrough idea to move forward with. This was an example where shared direction and commitment was a longer process.

Discussing the scenarios above, the author makes a number of key points including the following:

  • Direction, alignment and commitment about organizational change in a top-level group doesn’t necessarily mean these factors exist more broadly in the organization, but it is certainly an important first step.
  • A particularly important driver of the way people go about making leadership happen is the collective’s shared belief about what will produce direction, alignment and commitment.
  • By looking at leadership from a whole-system perspective, you not only better see the multiple people involved, you also start to see how some actions that haven’t typically been part of the concept of ‘leading’ are indeed contributing to the production of leadership.

Business Application

Managers have a major responsibility for making leadership happen – a fact that is too often taken for granted. Here are three important strategies for taking hold of that responsibility:

  1. Pay attention to whether leadership is happening: by doing this, you will not only begin to discern where more leadership is needed, but will also start to see the kinds of processes and interactions producing the desired levels of direction, alignment and commitment.
  2. Make more leadership happen: create leadership processes where you notice there aren’t many in place. Where they are already in place, make sure people have the skills to participate in them effectively.
  3. Improve your own ability to participate in the making of leadership: continue to deepen and broaden your individual skills and abilities. With a broader repertoire of capabilities, you’ll be able to participate more effectively in a wide range of leadership processes.

Leadership is shared work; at the end of the day, you can only make it happen with others.

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Idea conceived

  • 2011

Idea posted

  • February 2013

DOI number



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