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Editor’s Comment: Can workplaces survive without leaders?

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Annie Ward

It doesn’t take much scratching around the history of mankind to find that leadership and dominance is a biological universal among all social mammals; Editor’s Comment looks at why we can’t escape from the ‘I lead you follow’ model.



According to Nigel Nicholson of Managing the Human Animal leadership in the animal kingdom can be seen in many different guises and can tell us a lot about how our workplaces are structured today.

From chimpanzees that beat up each other for alpha status to wolves who try to out conciliate one another to gain the regard of the pack, leadership is every where you look.

But it doesn’t always stop short of leadership and followership, for complex structures to survive an element of team work it would appear is essential.

Bees provide a fascinating example. They are considered to be one of the most intelligent insects. Living in complex, socially structured colonies with tens of thousands of workers the queen bee leads the pack, her role to lay up to 2000 eggs a day during the summer season to keep the colony going.

Their communication structure is much to be desired and many workplaces across the UK could learn a lot – telling each other for example where to find the best flowers by doing a little dance.

So if the animal kingdom can’t do without leaders and team work, can workplaces and is there always a direct correlation between those companies that do well and those that have effective leaders?

In other words is the person at the top everything?

Recently, Paul Kearns, an outspoken critic of HR practices that cannot clearly demonstrate the value they add to organisations, looked at leadership and asked why do we need HR leaders?

Kearns, argued that the reason for leadership amounted to a Darwinist argument that only the fit survive.

“As a society we demand so much of ourselves these days. We expect excellent customer service, low prices, low taxes and we have an insatiable appetite for more products and services, both from the public and commercial sectors.”

It would seem that leadership therefore is seen as a prerequisite of success and survival in the corporate jungle.

But is the company bigger then the leader or is the leader bigger then the company?

There’s no doubt that there are companies where the leader is inextricably linked into the very roots of the business – take Branson and Virgin, Gates and Microsoft, Roddick and the Body Shop.

When these charismatic leaders move on – what will become of their businesses? Can they survive beyond the leader or is the leader all pervading in every aspect of the business?

Certainly in these structures it would seem that the leader is everything but take a firm of solicitors where the professional structures of partners means a distribution of power where a leader might not be essential to the success of the business.

In flatter structures, success is based on cooperation, freedom, empowerment and mutual aid. Both structures are valid – I wonder, however, if one will survive the other over time.

I asked professional body, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development for their views.

Jessica Jarvis, CIPD Training and Development Adviser, said:

“CIPD research has shown that two-thirds of training managers believe that UK organisations are suffering from a shortage of highly effective leaders. But the same survey shows that training professionals are still facing considerable challenges in delivering leadership development. Arguments continue to rage about the most effective solutions and almost half of respondents report that it isn’t an essential business activity (47%). Other significant barriers are a lack of support from senior managers (40%) and problems proving the direct impact of activities on business performance (38%).

“There is a danger that the leadership deficit could undermine the ability of UK organisations to adapt to change and achieve their business strategies. Senior managers need to recognise that many aspects of leadership can be taught, and that effective leadership development strategies are essential if this is to happen. In a modern world where organisations are undergoing some form of significant change process on average every three years, efforts need to be devoted to ensuring that leaders are equipped with the skills to successfully lead and manage these processes of change.”

So it would seem that leadership is all around us, both in the animal kingdom and workplaces across the world.

Leadership, however, can be good and bad and as Nicholson argues the more complex the social system, the more routes there are too high status – via inheritance, possession of a talent or skill, by alliance or social dominance.

Making sure the right people are in place is surely the most important job that HR has to play to ensure that companies continue to thrive and grow and if as the CIPD say there is a shortage of effective leaders, HR has its work cut out for it.

HRZone would like to hear your views on this subject. Simply post your comment on leadership in the box below.

2 Responses

  1. The paradox of Semco
    I found the article and the Semco comments really interesting. Actually, the paradox about self-led teams at Semco is that there remains doubt about whether the company could have developed such a self-directed team ethos under the previous regime. Fundamentally, what Ricardo Semler brought was leadership.

    I do remember from my own distant operational past that when supervisors and operational managers went on their away days etc the operational shift continued smoothly without their presence. Why? Because they had displayed leadership. Workplace teams felt empowered, were clear about objectives and had the resources (including skills) to manage any eventuality.

    Non of this happens overnight or through serendipity. It takes a conscious decision someone where (usually at the top) in the organisation that makes creating a vibrant, engaged and participatory workplace a matter of principle.

    My own view is that leadership is required at all levels within an organisation. It has nothing to do with job title, and everything to do with followship. Time, effort and investment at all levels is required to make it happen – just so pleople can say “we don’t need our leaders, we can do it ourselves”.

  2. Maybe it’s not a requirement at all
    Strong Leadership can greatly benefit a business, I’m not sure that anyone would dispute this. But there is a case for self-led or democratic business models, Brazil’s Semco is an excellent example of this.

    There’s no doubt that visionary leadership was responsible for the way their business is run but all employees now have an equal say in how the business is run and what will be done in times of economic hardship etc.

    Why is there an assumption that because someone has a degree, some management experience etc. that they are better placed to understand the business than all the guys who make the product, or deliver the service or who sell the product and so on?

    A democratic business model is a difficult one to live with, the overwhelming urge from senior management must be “but I know best” when they are overruled in the decision making process but in the long-term it creates jobs of value rather than of conformity. It gives staff confidence in their company, makes them feel valued, allows them to feel part of something more than just a job and develops everyone’s leadership skills not just the guy with whacking great salary…

    So, I’d say yes leadership is necessary but not to the extent of most British and American companies and particularly when most organisations can’t differentiate between a leader and a manager effectively.

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