I suspect it’s true that many organisations are highly successful almost despite everything that they do in the formal space to make themselves so. They are successful not because of hierarchy, rules, systems, or control, but rather because they are full of people who strive hard to make them so. People who collectivise into tightly bonded tribal units, exist within a network of trust and social consequence, and who have found pride in what they do. The system is successful in ways that it does not understand, but it seeks to understand it’s own success in visible spaces it understands well. And it convinces itself that this is the full picture.
The formal system keeps going, not simply because it’s too stubborn to change, but partly because it engages in a type of post hoc rationalisation: we try to be successful, we see some success, therefore, everything we did to make us successful has worked. There is an assumption of cause that is simply not justified. And where measurement occurs, it’s often a measure of what’s easy to measure, rather than a measure of what really counts.
Perhaps it’s useful to think of ‘success’ in two ways: a formal understanding of the challenge, and a tacit capability embedded within the organisation. With formal learning, and rules based systems, you can achieve the former, but the latter, which is where true capability and momentum sits, requires us to accept that there is a second layer, a social aspect of the organisation that lies beyond that which we can easily see and measure, or at least can see and measure in a meaningful way.
I prefer to think of it like this: within the formal system, using everything at our disposal, we can create a scaffolding of knowledge, guidance, support, and space for experimentation, but we typically can’t ‘create’ capability or excellence. We can only create the space in which learning and effectiveness emerge.
Within the tightly interwoven, tribal, and invisible social aspects of the organisation, at an individual, and collective level, we find true capability.
Our role, within the formal system should not be to rationalise our own brilliance, which almost implicitly reduces the role of community to servant, blindly following orders, but rather that of facilitator, enabler, grateful gatekeeper. Our formal roles should be ones of humility, not blind pride, or self congratulatory comfort.
Our formal leaders need to build their Social Leadership: reputation based authority, beyond the visible and controlled system. And our organisational structures should recognise capability outside the hierarchy, and be willing to recognise and thank it for what it achieves.
The Socially Dynamic Organisation will have this: a diversified strength of fantastic and adaptable formal systems, strong Social Leadership at every level, and a humility of action and intent, a recognition that our organisation should be nurtured as much as controlled, enabled as much as governed.
As you’ve discussed many times before, formal structure isn’t ‘bad’ and shouldn’t necessarily be done away with across the board–what needs to happen in most organizations is a recognition on all levels that not all ‘leaders’ actually lead, and that leadership can and often should be a fluid thing based on the task at hand. I do like that you explicitly state that even formal leaders need to build their social leadership reputations. No one wants to follow a leader who hasn’t proven him- or herself to be the ‘real deal.’ I would take that one step further and assert that proving oneself in the past to get to a position of formal leadership isn’t enough. Social leadership is a continual process of showing that one’s knowledge and experience are relevant through sharing and guidance, not simply by ‘paying one’s dues’ and then sitting back and dictating to others.
Quite right Gail, Social Leadership is for everyone, and it reflects the evolving role of leaders: increasingly, to create spaces to hear other voices, to create the conditions for community. Hope you’re well, Julian
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