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Leadership Q&A: An Organic Foundation

Old house foundation

Organic leadership is emerging as the kind that will characterize the 21st century. The 20th century was marked by what William H. Whyte termed in the 1950’s as The Organizational Man, critiqued in Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit and parodied in Mike Judge’s Office Space.  At its extreme, the Organizational approach to leadership was built upon hierarchy, compliance and order.

It would be a mistake to think of Organic leadership as simply a free, open, adaptive type of methodology, or the opposite of the traditional Organizational approach. Rather the Organic grows out of the strengths of the old system to become what the former structure could not produce.

The foundation of the Organizational age of leadership was order, systems of efficiency,  and hierarchical accountability. From Henry Ford’s assembly line to today’s globally integrated corporations, this worked as long as competition and choice were limited and the market cornered. However, as diversity of product choices, global competition, and the complexity of systems became more wide spread, the limitations of the 20th century organization began to show itself.

Those limitations are centered in the role of people in the organization. Employees were hired to do a job. They worked within confines of a limited range of expectations. They were not expected to lead or contribute beyond their defined role within the structure. In reality, they were discouraged from taking initiative because it was inefficient and unpredictable.

As a result, the importance of the purpose or mission of the organization was lost as a motivating factor for workers to perform at a high level of excellence. Work became duty, drudgery and a necessary and less than enjoyable way to make a living.  As a result, leisure time with its pursuits of recreation, hobbies and homegrown businesses grew in importance.

However over the past generation something else began to change. That change was the desire by people to have more control over their lives, and to be able to express themselves by their own personal initiative. The desire to create began to grow as a motivating factor in life and work. As a result, the rise of the small business entrepreneur began to make a difference.

When I graduated from college in 1975, I knew no one who left school to begin their own business. Everyone either went on to a graduate school to gain professional certification or to work in their parents’ business or to work for a corporation. I realized this recently as I sat across the table from of a 26 year old friend and client, who began his business at the age of 18, and is now one of the most sought after business and community leaders in our community. He is not alone as a young person who has started his or her own business, eschewing the pattern of those I knew in my 20’s who would not have given a thought to being an entrepreneur.

What marks the entrepreneur is the kind of leadership that I’m describing as Organic. In the mid-1980’s Peter Drucker in his influential book Innovation and Entrepreneurship characterized The Seven Sources of Innovative Opportunity as…

1. The unexpected – the unexpected success, the unexpected failure, the unexpected outside event;

2. The incongruity – between reality as it actually is and reality as it is assumed to be or as it “ought to be”;

3. Innovation based on process need;

4. Changes in industry structure or market structure that catch everyone unawares

5. Demographics (population changes);

6. Changes in perception, mood, and meaning;

7. New knowledge, both scientific and nonscientific.

Energizing this culture of innovation and entrepreneurship is the importance of human purpose. Some may refer to their purpose as a mission or calling. Regardless, for those who have acted upon this inner motivation to make a difference, it marks a cultural change that affects businesses and organizations in dramatic ways.

This is precisely the human development that Dan Pink has identified in his books. In his most recent, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, he points to three elements that are needed by people today. They are Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose.

These elements have always been needed by people. They are fundamental conditions for living a full and productive human life. Yet what has been missing for at least a century or two has been the social and cultural systems for their development and sustainability. It is the rise of the Organic organizational structure that provides people a context where their own sense of purpose is allowed to be expressed through their work.

Quite possibly, the most significant change required for organizations to make the shift to a more Organic approach, is with the practice of leadership.  Here are three changes or practices that illustrate this shift.

1. The importance of personal initiative. All leadership begins with the initiative of some individual. If the organization is dependent or conditioned for the Senior Executive to be the only one who takes initiative, then the organizations is not reaching its leadership potential. In an Organic leadership systems, the assumption or better, the expectation is that everyone will lead from their place in the organization. This leading is simply taking initiative to make a difference that matters.

2. An open system for leadership. For people to feel the freedom to take initiative to lead, the social context of the organization, along with the structure of the organization, must provide few barriers to leading. Open systems are Organic ones. However, it is important to understand that openness doesn’t mean lacking structure. Rather, the structure facilitates individual initiative. 3Cs of Alignment - image

3. The importance of shared leadership. The importance of collaboration grows as individuals find the freedom to take leadership initiative. Within my Circle of Impact approach, Collaboration needs to be aligned with Communication and the Coordination of the structure to support shared leadership.

The foundation of Organic leadership is human purpose. Without a clearly articulated purpose, personal initiative is much harder to develop. Developing an Organic leadership system requires recruiting and developing in people a clear purpose that can be aligned with the organization’s mission.

About the author

Dr. Ed Brenegar I'm a leadership speaker, writer and consultant who is a mentor and catalyst for change. I assist leaders and their teams in the transitions required to succeed in today's complex organizational environment. I live in Western North Carolina. I'm involved the Boy Scouts, a charitable leadership training group called Lessons In Leadership, an ordained Presbyterian Church USA minister, and am the host of the Say Thanks Every Day social network.

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