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Leadership Q&A: Turn of the Tide


In the world of leadership, we are at a turn of the tide. We are witnessing and experiencing a sea change in approach to leading. It is important to understand this change so that we can be prepared to live in the age that is emerging.

I’m going to oversimplify this change by identifying three eras of leadership. These are three approaches to leading that are indicative of the time and cultural contexts that they represent. These three kinds of leading are the Overlord, Organization and Organic eras.

The Overlord era was the predominant approach in pre-industrial societies. It is the story of kings, emperors and dictators, and their quest for power and domination of people and kingdoms.

The Organization era arose during the Industrial age. It marks the rise of the manager leader whose power is in the control of organizational processes. It is the age that all of us living today were born into, what know as normal, and where the central conflicts of our time have been played out.

The Organic era is the age of the individual as leader. In this age, the individual is free to communicate, collaborate and coordinate with whom they choose.

A general perception is that these eras have occurred in a linear sequence of time, one right after the other. Actually, they have always been present, with one or another taking precedent because of the cultural and historical circumstances of the time. None emerge to prominence without conflict, just as today we see conflict between large corporate and government organizations with entrepreneurs in their small, agile enterprises.

Leadership in this respect is about the control of power, the control of organizational and governmental processes, and the individual entrepreneur’s self-control. Even, during the time of the Caesars, under the Emperor, there were functionaries who ran the organization of the empire for the emperor, along with the independent laborer, farmer and seller of goods who lived by their own abilities to interact, sell and make a living for their families.

The turn of the tide we are in the midst of is away from big to small, from complex to simple, from rigid to agile, and for the most part, this approach is that of the Organic type of leadership. dependent on the ability of people to communicate, work together, and find ways to align their individual efforts to achieve a shared impact that would not be possible otherwise.

This is not a recent development. You can see it historical moments of change like the Protestant Reformation where emphasis on the individual’s relationship to God emerged as a fundamental principle for the rise of Western capitalism and democratic governance.  Following in its path is the  Declaration of Independence of the American Revolution whose signers elevated the equality of all individuals to a foremost position with these words:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

What linear progression exists between these eras is the spread of individual freedom. It is this phenomenon that has made the subject of leadership a cultural concern for the average citizen in societies around the globe.

Organic leadership grows out of the quest for individuals to be free and self-determining. What they discover is that the freedom of individual leads not to simple independence, but rather inter-dependence with other free individuals.

There has always been in existence the presence of organic leadership. It is found in families and other traditional societies where the individual brings their own talent and commitment to help create a healthy, sustainable community. This is where Organic leadership finds its most creative expression. It does so because what unites an Organic leadership community is not process or power, but the purpose that brings them together. Underlying this purpose are values that unite people, create an environment of trust and a shared vision for their leadership together.

This type of leadership community has been evident is small versions throughout history. It is only in our time, and really, only within the past few years, that Organic leadership has the means to emerge as a form of organization for a global society of individuals.

The difference is technology. Today, we can log on to our internet provider, and within moments be in a visual conversation with someone 12 time zones away.  The potential for individuals through their collaboration together to change the world is no longer an idealistic notion, but a reality that has begun to take place.

For example, this spirit of individual freedom that is collaborative linked around the globe is found in message of the Girl Effect.

This is not the spirit of crass individualism that seeks to divide people from one another in order to establish an advantage of one person or group over another. This type of individualism recognizes that achievement comes from collaboration.

As leaders, how do we embrace this turn toward Organic leadership?  Do so with these principles.

1. Respect for the individual and their self-determination.

2. Leadership begins with individual initiative.

3. Recognize of one’s own limitations, and the need for others to achieve our ambitions.

4. Realization that measure of leadership is impact or change that makes a difference, not the exercise of power or the management of processes.

5. Restore traditions that elevate values that unite people for endeavors that are greater than their own aspirations.

The tide is turning.

Today it is more difficult to hold absolute power. More challenging to manage complex processes that no longer have predictable results.

Today, leaders must be able to communicate well with a wide diversity of people, know how to facilitate the collaborative interaction of people and create agile processes and structures that support the initiative of people to freely give their best to a shared purpose.

Today, there is no better time in human history to look at the future and say, “It is time for me to lead.” And then do so.

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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