Creating Leadership in a Flat Organization

Written by Chris Lucas on February 24, 2012

Posted in Human Resources

LeadershipLeadership is often discussed among organizations big and small, and it’s usually a top down approach, meaning, how do CEO’s, managers, etc., lead their people/teams. But the reality is, especially in smaller organizations, is that leadership shouldn’t only come from the top. To be a strong organization, especially when trying to scale, you need to instill leadership from everyone in the organization. Joel Spolsky had a great post on Fred Wilson’s blog, A VC, about The Management Team that talks about some of these same things.

It’s very difficult when you are a team of 10-15 people like we are, to have a bunch of managers or leadership titles. It’s easy when someone’s title is Manager/Director/Vice President for them to assume leadership, but it is very difficult when everyone is essentially on the same level. So how do you instil leadership or at least empower your team to take on more leadership? I’ve tried to boil it down to three ways that your organization can do it.

1) Forget what you think you know about leadership: Leadership isn’t about you. It’s not about your ideas. It’s taken me a while, and I still have to remind myself, but real leadership, the kind that drives an organization to do great things, is about setting a course and maintaining confidence that your team will do the driving.  Leadership is about understanding that you don’t actually know everything, and that’s ok. We often say we don’t have the right answer, but we are willing to try. That is leadership, knowing that sometimes you have to try a lot to get the one right. Sometimes stepping back is the best thing you can do for your team.

2) Give enough rope... I was reading an employee evaluation and the person said that he was glad that he had been given enough rope to “hang himself” on a certain project. The project he referred to was a bust. Not because it was ill-conceived or because someone didn’t try, but it was because there was too great of a vision and no one to real-in the vision. BUT, he also said he learned a great deal. Part of building leadership in your organization is allowing your employees to dream big and fail big. Not too big, mind you, but big enough to resonate with them. Give someone enough opportunity and they will learn to succeed. They will learn how to get the big wins and they will learn how to move the company forward. It’s not easy, especially when you can see a train wreck coming down the tracks, but sometimes your employees need that to grow.

3) Acknowledging leadership: As I said above, not everyone in a small or flat organization can have a leadership title, so it’s fundamentally harder to recognize leaders. A few simple things can help. The first is letting people take ownership of projects. Have a big launch? Let someone project manage the marketing or the development. Need to produce some kick-ass content? Let someone be the lead to interview customers and produce the videos. Whatever it is, give people in your organization a chance to shine. But that’s not it. Make sure you acknowledge their contributions. Not just to them, but to the organization. Make sure that you thank them. It’s tough for people to take on big projects, especially on a small team, because if they fail or something goes wrong everyone can see it. It takes guts to take ownership, and it’s easy for management to hide behind “delegating” tasks so their necks aren’t on the line. So reward as much as possible, you will start to see more members of your team take risks and step up to challenges.

Now, all what I wrote sounds great in theory, right? But it’s hard. I’d be lying if I said we do everything above. We are trying, and it is important to try, because as you grow, you need these “everyday” leaders to grow with you, but it’s not easy. You need to make a concerted effort to create leadership in your organization, even if you can’t promote everyone to Senior Yadda Yadda. Creating leadership is the fundamental issue in moving your company forward. Good Luck! Have comments, let us know below.