The Tallest Leader

Todays post is a #WorkingOutLoud reflection around the design of a workshop i’m running tomorrow. I’m prototyping a few new ideas and activities, within this session, which is aimed at Execs in businesses who are trying to understand and adapt to the realities of the Social Age. I think i’ll start with an exercise about ‘The Tallest Leader’, which explores the differences between formal and social systems.

The Tallest Leader

Ask people to line up, with the tallest at one end and shortest at the other, and it’s a reasonably easy exercise: aside from some debate about whether high heels count, or haircuts, you can generally shuffle about, look at the people next to you, and find your place.

Once you have your vertically segmented lineup, ask them to re-order in terms of who is the most senior person in the room.

It’s harder, especially if people come from multiple organisations, or no organisation at all. In general, there is conversation and confusion, and often an attempt to impose a scale: most senior in years, in job title, in educational qualification and so on. If people work in the same organisation, most often they fall to the reliable measure of the team structure.

Now ask them to re-order in terms of who is the best leader. Or the person who knows most about HR Law, or the person who innovates the most, or has the best ideas, or who helps other people the most.

It’s impossible, for a number of reasons: firstly, nobody wants to be at either end, and secondly, they may be held back by modesty, by uncertainty, by simply not realising that they are the expert in the room.

The point is this: the tallest leader is easy to quantify: the best leader is harder to find. And the expertise? It’s contextual, and distributed. The answer to ‘who is the best expert in the room’ is, of course, ‘the room’, or, in the language of the Social Age, ‘the community’.

Formal systems recognise formal expertise and quantifiable seniority. Social systems recognise tacit and embedded expertise and Social Leadership. What are the odds that the two systems along? Next to nothing. Which is why we need both formal and Social leadership within an organisation.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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6 Responses to The Tallest Leader

  1. What a great but simple way to demonstrate the difference Julian, love it.

  2. sarah says:

    Just curious Julian – in an ‘ideal’ context, would it be better for an organization if formal and social leadership did align (possibly more efficient, or agile) or if they didn’t (broader range of perspective maybe, or distribution of influence across functions or levels within the organization)?

  3. Hello Julian !
    I tried this activity yesterday with a group of leaders.
    One of them was 6’5″ and another 5,0″.
    I had asked them to think about their crucible moment, what made them … them.
    Once there were aligned I asked them to share their crucible moment with the leader next to them.
    We repeated the process as you suggested using their seniority.
    And again they shared their crucible moment in groups of three this time.
    A really nice way to get them to get acquainted.
    And then the malaise….
    I asked them to move according to their worth as leader. I asked a few times , Who is the best leader in the room…
    Afte a few minutes on discomfort I asked them to go back to their table and repeated the question.
    I then showed the slide showing two words : THE ROOM!
    And the next slide : No one is as smart as all of us.

    What nice moment!!

    Thanks for sharing!!

    • Cherish @cherishbentley says:

      What going to ask “how did this go in practice” but you’ve answered that – thanks for sharing the experience.

  4. Pingback: This Week’s Links « Timothy Siburg

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