True leadership emerges in an inclusive context


…… Part of The Basics series. First published in November 2014 ……

In an early experiment by educational pioneer Sugata Mitra, he broke a hole in the wall between his office and a slum in India and made a computer available to children who had never before seen one. A quote from the BBC article about this caught my attention back in 2005:

“You find that the noise level begins to come down, and from somewhere a leader appears. Often his face is not visible in the crowd, but he is controlling the mouse because suddenly you see the mouse begin to move in an orderly fashion.”

True leadership happens naturally, emerging from an inclusive context.

Leadership is not a question of level or position, although organizations do have “so-called” leaders at different points in the hierarchy. It is not a question of personality. Warm charismatic people are good dinner companions, but do not necessarily qualify as leaders.

Leaders share three characteristics, all of which underly inclusiveness:

  1. They are humble and know how to listen.
  2. They have followers.
  3. They motivate others.

If you think about these three characteristics, you will begin to recognize leaders all around you. They are rarely part of the official “leadership” contingent but they play critical roles in organizations. Some may be community managers, well-followed internal bloggers, or customer service reps always ready to guide new colleagues.

In the digital age, leadership emerges in the workplace when flows of information and ideas live in a context of open, participatory management and cross-organizational communities.

Like the hand emerging from the crowd of children to control the mouse, leaders gradually emerge from the “noise” in an enterprise digital workplace.

As an organization starts down the social collaboration path, there are often concerns about this “noise”. About people wasting time. People talking about non work-related topics. People spending time “surfing” on the enterprise social network.

Management start to get nervous. How can we control this? Where is the ROI? This nervousness is felt because the flows of information and ideas are moving simultaneously in all directions. In the predigital era, information and ideas moved along hierarchical lines or within closed teams and groups.

Digital facilitates inclusiveness.

A digital workplace on the other hand enables voices of people to be heard. It lets anyone share information with others. It lets people follow people and groups. It connects people who share a purpose but don’t yet know each other. In the predigital age, this was quasi impossible. In the predigital age there were “safeguards”or rather barriers in place in the form of designated communicators and official content publishers. Management was more comfortable, but leadership was more limited.

A mature digital workplace augments the noise.

A mature digital workplace make it easier for ideas and information to grow and spread in the natural course of working.

The capability of “sharing information and knowledge directly without going through official publishers” is over three times more common in maturing digital workplaces.

  • 78 percent of the maturing digital workplaces have this capability in place enterprise-wide compared to 23 percent in other organizations.

People can find other people without know their names by searching on key words in self-declarative people directories.

  • 78 percent of maturing digital workplaces have this capability enterprise wide compared to 31 percent of the others.

People across the organization can propose ideas in response to a problem-solving challenge.

  • 40 percent of maturing digital workplaces versus 8 percent of the others report having this capability enterprise wide.

A mature digital workplace shapes noise into value and breeds new leadership.

Self-organizing communities across the organization counterbalance traditional hierarchical lines.

Counterbalance does not mean “in addition to”. It means “opposite but equal“. Organizations with maturing digital workplaces have strong flows in both dimensions:

  • Horizontal: Cross-organizational communities
  • Vertical: Management communication with the workforce

In these organizations, people are able to ask questions and get answers from management. It means they can organize into communities and work towards shared purposes.

In organizations with maturing digital workplaces, 72 percent report that they have cross-organizational communities enterprise-wide. This is three times the 23 percent reported by other organizations. These communities, usually self-organizing around topics or purposes, play different roles ranging from managing projects, curating content to proactive work on strategic business topics.

In organizations with maturing digital workplaces, top management is more likely to have an “open and participatory” approach. In fact, 34 percent say it is “a regular practice” for management to do live webcasts in town hall style where they take questions directly from the workforce. This compares to a 8 percent for the other organizations.

How much “noise” does your organization generate and how is this transforming your organization?

How would you answer these questions?

  • Can people share information, connect to each other and build communities across your organization?
  • Can people contribute ideas and help solve problems even when it is not part of their job description?
  • Do you have cross-organizational, self-organizing communities and if so, what roles do they play?
  • Can people communicate directly with senior managers, asking questions and getting answers?

Credits: Photos are from Mitra’s TED talk in 2010. A second talk in 2013 shows how far his work has progressed.)

This post was originally published in 2014 and the data are from “The Digital Workplace in the Connected Organization” report, published in February 2014.  314 organizations were surveyed worldwide in Q3 of 2013. The term “maturing digital workplaces” refers to the top 20 percent of the 314 organizations as per the Maturity Scale. They are referred to as “early adopters” in the 2014 report. Scoring is based on a selection of questions in the survey and the respondents’ own answers.



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