Distributed Leadership

Today’s organizations cannot afford management; they need leadership! That needed leadership is not exclusive to those on the top of the organization chart but lies with each and every employee. Empowerment is a popular buzzword but deployment is typically a farce. Many managers like to say that they have empowered their reports (the people who report to them) but the employees know better. When it comes to decision time, most managers feel compelled to call the shots and leave the workers resigned to following orders, using their arms and legs, but not their brains.

Why do we have multiple layers of managers in our organizations? They:

  • Consume capital
    • Salaries
    • Bonuses
    • Perks
    • Offices
    • Equipment
  • Distort and delay communications, up and down
  • Delay decisions
    • Shielded from the real work by other managers
    • Need for research to find out what is real
    • Justify existence

A small organization might only need three levels of employees—CEO/Owner, Process Leaders, and Process Members. The organization could then be viewed as a long tube similar to a cluster of wires wrapped in a sheath of support processes. This tube can be accurately labeled as a value-added conduit. This tube would have raw materials, suppliers, our firm, distributers, and consumers in series from front to back. The term “our firm” represents your organization includes what is done internally to change inputs to outputs in the organization.

The wires inside the tube would be the key processes of the organization and include process members who do the work and a process leader. They are responsible for the success of that process and accountable for making decisions in real time. Process members and process leaders must therefore be properly selected for their positions, trained, and given authority to do what is needed and in the best interest of the customers, employees, and the owners. They should not be second guessed for errors but helped to correct mistakes and learn. It is okay to make mistakes, we are all human, as long as they are admitted and corrected quickly. A good rule to follow is, “Fix the problem and not the blame.”

The distinction between managers and leaders is important. The word manage has a connotation of control, as if the employees need to be controlled. Business schools used to teach that the proper “span of control” for any manager was between three and ten people. A manager under that thinking could be viewed as sitting in the drivers seat cracking the whip over the employees. Another type of manager, equally distasteful, is like a passenger knowing they cannot be a hard driver and ultimately successful, therefore just sit back and hope the organization is going in the right direction. A leader is out in front of the employees, leading the way and setting the direction. Leaders lead!

Much work is going on today to decrease waste, rework, and redundancy from organizations to cut costs and improve efficiency. Aren’t too many levels of management a form of waste, rework, and redundancy?

An organization is optimized when leadership responsibility is truly distributed to each and every employee and all employees become leaders.


The New Economics, Dr. W. Edwards

Made In America by Sam Walton and John Huey

“Organizing for Empowerment”-AES, Suzy Wetlaufer

Ronald Schmidt-Zytec Corporation