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Deborah Ancona

Deborah Ancona

Deborah Ancona is the Seley Distinguished Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management and the Faculty Director of the MIT Leadership Center.

Distributed leadership at work

Q: How can a senior leader encourage junior leaders to act and make decisions when they find themselves without specific guidance? How can a junior leader know when it's right to take charge?

Empowering junior leaders is not just a good idea; it is imperative in today's globalized world. As Ed Ruggero notes in the video, "inaction was not an option" for John Buford and it is not an option in successful organizations today.

Today "command and control" at the top is going the way of the buggy whip and being replaced by "distributed leadership" where junior leaders act when local needs arise and as organizational imperatives demand. Take the Oxfam leader in Haiti who employed local workers to assemble survival kits rather than ordering them pre-assembled so as to stimulate the local economy. No checking with headquarters here.

Such junior leaders are "first born and then made." Organizations that practice distributed leadership first select carefully. At Google they search for "Googliness" and at Southwest they look for high-energy individuals with great relating skills. These are not individuals who are waiting to be told what to do.

But then these people are supported to develop an identity of "I can" and "I will." How? They are given lots of leadership experiences and the means to learn from them. Junior leaders are rewarded--not blamed--for stating their views and taking action. Then they are mentored and organizational systems like Army "after-action reviews" provide the mechanisms whereby they can reflect on what just happened and learn from those with more experience. They are given opportunities to build their networks and to make multiple smaller decisions so they are prepared to face the critical big ones.

John Buford faced a life-and-death decision (literally for his troops, potentially for the young nation) but it certainly was not the first decision he made. He had 16 years experience operating without a lot of guidance so he was ready to act when the decision time came.

But while organizations want to reward distributed leadership and action, they do not want chaos. Successful distributed-leadership companies bound the chaos by providing guiding principles, an organizational mindset, and mechanisms for risk mitigation. Here, everyone understands, from the top to the bottom, a shared strategy, business model and priorities. The result is that leaders can emerge at all levels and work in an aligned way.

For example, at PARC, engineers are encouraged to aim for "triple word scores" that pair technical innovation with customer satisfaction and economic return for the firm. At W.L. Gore each associate takes on the responsibility of making sure that no one "hits below the waterline" and sinks the whole ship.

Buford made an isolated decision, but he did not act in isolation. He operated from a broader vision of the priorities of the war, acted with calculated risk, and successfully enlisted support - turning the tide of the battle, the war and the fate of the United States.

By Deborah Ancona

 |  April 22, 2010; 1:15 PM ET
Category:  Leadership development Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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