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Work Life Lead: The Organic Imperative


Last week’s column, Turn of the Tide, presented the idea that we are entering a new era of leadership. I call this new era Organic because it is a leadership that grows, and is not simply manufactured.

A manufactured type of leadership is built around the structure of an organization. It is defined by titles, roles, responsibilities and processes.

Organic leadership emerges from the living interaction of people, and is a product of their attitudes and behaviors, their commitments, values and vision for impact.

As a result, leadership is less a task or role I may play, and more how I live and work each day. Leadership of this sort is personal, as well as professional. It is personal because it touches the values and commitments that are personally meaningful to us.

Take for instance the person who is a bank teller. His job is to processes transactions between individuals and organizations with the bank. Deposits are transacted, and withdrawals made. There are policies and procedures that govern the work of the teller. Compliance and efficiency are essential to being an effective teller. And if he makes no mistakes in calculations and processing transactions, then his job is done.

However, if your teller takes the attitude that he is a leader, then his behavior will be different. He will take the effort to act as the host for his window at the bank. He’ll greet regular customers by name. He’ll look for additional ways to serve them. He’ll make a connection with the customer in such a way that the relationship between the customer and the bank is transformed.

A generation ago James Macgregor Burns wrote the first standard text on leadership, called Leadership. In his book, Burns, a historian, presented a new idea for the time that leaders should focus on transformation, rather than simply conducting transactions between people.  This was the first text on leadership that I read after getting the “leadership bug” as a young professional.

What Burns was ushering in was one of the first ways of understanding the nature of Organic leadership. When the banker teller sees himself as a transformational leader, he is looking for opportunities to make a difference that matters to the customer. He will go out of his way to search for ways for the bank to serve, rather than simply conduct financial transactions with nameless individuals.

The shift from an Organizational leadership approach to an Organic one brings with it an imperative that calls to each of us.

Leadership is no longer someone else’s job. It is now how we function both personally and professionally with people in both social and organizational settings.

As as a result, Organic leadership is the leadership of shared personal initiative.

The skills for this kind of leadership are different. Certainly, the bank teller must be able to perform the duties of his position. However, to be a transformational leader is to provide an environment in that small cubicle of the teller’s window that enables the customer to discover how the bank can serve her needs.  In this respect the teller functions as a concierge leader, facilitating the customers broadening relationship to the bank. This not just the teller’s responsibility, but every employee working at that branch. They function as a knowledgeable team who knows how to introduce the customer to other bank employees who can provide the exact service the customer needs.

Organic leadership is a much more than a relationship-centered approach. This kind of leadership opens up new avenues for the development of products and services through the collaboration that is a natural result of organic interaction.

How do you know if Organic leadership is taking root in your organization?

When you see individuals stepping out o f their prescribed organizational role to take personal initiative to address a need or meet an opportunity. If people see their job as something to endure until they go home, then Organic leadership has not taken root and begun to grow.

Two millennia go, Jesus illustrated a point about faith using the analogy of organic growth.

A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell on the path and was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up. Some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered for lack of moisture. Some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew with it and choked it. Some fell into good soil, and when it grew, it produced a hundredfold.’ As he said this, he called out, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’ (Luke 8:5-8 NSRV)

The truth of this story has meaning for for leadership in organizations today. Jesus’ point is that for something to grow, it requires the right soil or setting. The same is true for Organic leadership. If the ground for expanding leadership in a company is rocky, hard and full of barriers to personal initiative, then it will not grow.

This means that even if you have great people who are motivated to serve and lead, and the systems of your organization are resistance to new leadership, then it will not grow. The people will become cynical leave.

There exists in every person, recognized or not, the capacity to lead through personal initiative. The environment that exists in organizations is the ground that is either receptive or not to people’s desire to give their best, make a difference, and find fulfillment in the work that they do. When the ground is not suitable for growth, personal initiative dies and leadership fails.

Regardless of the position that you have in an organization, your leadership matters. It is not just an issue of your doing your best, and being a congenial person. Rather it is seeing that wherever you are provides an opportunity to bring transformation to the lives of other people, whether your co-workers or customers.

The other truth about Organic leadership is that we cannot do it alone. Collaboratively, we create ways for Organic leadership to grow in the good soil of human interaction, personal initiative and being a person who makes a difference to others.

The Organic Imperative is to open the environment and systems of organizations to the passion and commitments of people expressed through their own personal initiative.

Lower the barriers for leading, and the organization’s opportunities will expand dramatically. Organic leadership is more than emphasizing relationship.  It is create an environment where individuals are free to make a difference which expands the impact of their organization.

Photo Credit: K.Koshyk

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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