Learning about the tensions between formal leadership and emergent leadership

Tracy Robinson, Gabriel Shirley, Pam Kilborn-Miller, Les Ihara, Jr., Brian Bainidge, Claudia Eilers, Mary Ellen Sarraytro, Diana Smith, Suzanne Daigle, Gervase Bushe, Doug Marteinson, Natasha Sarcouman, Joan Unterschiietz, Shiloh Boss, Larry Peterson

Given that all systems and organizations are self-organizing and that most have created formal “leadership” roles, there is often some tension between the formal leaders and those leaders that emerge in Open Space. That leadership emerges based on both passion and the willingness to take responsibility. In “Wave Rider” Harrison states that “authentic” leadership is emergent – those who care enough to take some responsibility.

Formal leaders have both a “leadership” and a “management” role. They are sometimes threatened by emergent leaders, particularly if over time some organizational power or resources accrues to those taking on such leadership. Traditional management approaches focus on the formal authorities and encourage leaders to “manage” change. To fully engage the self-organization that is occurring all the time and enhanced by Open Space, understanding and dealing with the tension between the people and roles is critical to high performance. That tension is potentially a good thing but it difficult for most formal leaders or consultants.

We had a general discussion about this phenomenon. The following are some of the ideas that emerged in our discussion:

Situation - Formal leaders are embedded in formal structures, mind sets and procedures - Their identity is tied to the role and the perspective that they are actually in an “open system” is “life threatening” to some - It is a person’s “job”—and thus they are expected to act like an emergent leader even in a formal role - Some do not have the skill set or capabilities to see or move beyond this role. - This may be a given until we evolve

Some assumptions - Without well tuned tension there is not good sound on a musical instrument - Recognize that “participation” is different than real “engagement or choice” - Recognizing that systems are self-organizing is “a way of being”

Response - Be compassionate about the fear - Encourage improvisation in action - Coach formal leaders to go with what they like and ignore the rest - Be sure the formal leaders know ahead some of what will happen, know their role is to invite other’s leadership and be clear about what they are going to do next – be transparent - Identify how the system and formal leaders will use the resources that we have - Identify how to keep the system open as long as we can - Hold the grieving process - The front end design is critical (as is continuous design and re-design) - Formal leaders identify what success looks like but more importantly identify openness to outcomes that are beyond (or different than) expectations - Be sure the time frames are transparent