As the environment becomes more complex and less predictable, it becomes ever more difficult for a small cadre of senior executives to anticipate the future, set strategy and make critical resource tradeoffs.  That’s why so many CEOs in recent years have seemed to fall short of expectations.  The problem has less to do with their lack of competence, than with a management model that expects too much from too few, and too little from everyone else.

Historically, there was a clear distinction in most organizations between executives, managers and operators.  Top-level executives made the big strategic decisions, middle managers ensured alignment and exercised control, and first-level operators did the grunt work of implementation.  The problem with this model is that it concentrated the responsibility for enterprise leadership at the top—in individuals who were time-starved, far removed from customers, only dimly aware of emerging trends, and overly fond of the past. 

Tomorrow’s winning organizations won’t be the ones with the smartest or most dynamic CEO, but the ones that have figured out how to maximize their total leadership endowment.  To do this, a company must distribute the work of executive leadership across the entire organization.  At a minimum, this means ensuring that team members at all levels are …

  • Equipped with the business intelligence they need to make real-time tradeoffs to maximize enterprise success.
  • Involved directly in setting strategy and direction.
  • Empowered to launch new initiatives with a minimum of bureaucratic controls.
  • Encouraged to experiment with new management methods and processes (around compensation, performance review, resource allocation, etc.)
  • Able to play a role in evaluating and selecting executives for key roles.

In a nutshell, the best way of overcoming the “leadership limits” of the top team is by increasing the opportunities for “executive” leadership everywhere else in the organization.

Challenge Question: 

How can we distribute the work of “executive” leadership (setting strategy, defining values, allocating resources, making key appointments, etc.) in ways that overcome the “cognitive limits” of the top team and fully exploit the leadership talents of individuals across the organization?


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kjell-selander's picture

Promise to use the thoughts whereever possible. But we must ourselves ask why the classical management style still rule? How can the fossil leadership ideas have survived the evolutionary cull? Or are we a highlight of the paradigm shift that will bring out the pre adaptive organization. May we never forget to consider taking into account our archetypal patterns, otherwise I think the reality disappoint us.
With that caveat, I join a very keen struggle for a paradigm shift.

johannes-gerhard-schute's picture

The Challenge Question is definitely vital to improve work-life. And the first order solution - to me - is simple: radically lower management salary. Then the aggregation of more power than one can sensible wield will ease. And management will attract less of the people not interested in the (business)task, but in personal success.

But how can we lower management salaries, especially in big organisation. And I really mean drastically, in some cases I would even say 95% lower isn't low enough. There is very, very seldom a real reason, to pay millions for an employed manager.

jack-douglas-cerva's picture

Although there are many "engagement" tools today-Lean, Engagement Surveys, Teams, Toyota Manufacturing, Change Management, ect ect. I think we need to go back and recycle and innovate on the past, i.e. Socio-Technical Design. Tavistock and Self Managing Work Teams to bring a much larger group of people into the fore. And it will require a more confident and adaptive leader/board to listen.

Jack Douglas Cerva

kinit-salvi's picture

This is a good goal to pursue, but IMHO this "democratization" of executive leadership has some downsides. Empowering others works well when those being empowered want to rise to the occasion and lead. Leading requires a certain attitude and extra effort on top of one's day job. Without these two, being empowered actually becomes a burden. I believe a hybrid of the traditional top-tier approach and full democratization will work better. Nonetheless, I like this as a challenge.

jessie-henshaw's picture

One of the things no one would be surprised to hear is that we just don't have the applicable measurements to guide business decision making. While there has been a systemic shift in business to seeking sustainable investment advice, to avoid emergent liabilities of environmental impacts, emergent changes in the directions of innovation, and being cut out of shrinking windows of opportunity for uninhibited growth, those advisers have also been short on the needed information.

One of the reasons is we and they have been getting "bad information" from conceptually flawed measurement methods. The main reason, historically, is that it never mattered before, whether how we measured environmental impacts was accurate or not. Now everyone throws around global impact measures like popcorn, unaware that many are deeply flawed. That's the case for the main business environmental impact measure, the measure of a business's total energy demand. As now defined the standard method commonly leaves 80% of any normal business's energy demands uncounted.

The technical reason is rather simple. The economists who developed the ISO and LCA protocols decided not to try to count the energy demands of business services, the great majority of economic activity that businesses pay for to operate. Now that "technical glitch" has been solved, with a method called SEA. However, the whole world is caught with having invested decades of time and effort in collecting data for something other than what people thought, and finding we have not been making decisions about the total energy demands of business operations, even when we tried. It's something, it seems, to write off to "inexperience".

A short description of the big problem -
The systems physics paper that exposed it -
The "best case" application to begin steering business and investors in the right direction -

andr-carlos-ferreira-da-silva-bastos-bandeira's picture

I really like the challenge question because its very complete and linked. Still leadership is not that smooth. One worker can be really good at doing their job but as a leader they may lack in soft skills. Quoting: "Every worker is promoted untill he reaches his incompetence level" After a brief of my considerations i will set my idea:
To be able to distribute the work of "executive" leadership an organization needs to be aware of the need of evaluating their workers. Evaluation is a way to understand the position and the trust that can be deposited in individuals (depending, of course, the way it is built). But this isnt enough.
To continue the prosecution of this process and to firm this bond between the top team and the individuals, there is a need to be modified. What i mean is, the information that is passed to the hierarchy below, needs to be less treated so they can develop their potencial and see how they can make the organization exploit their leadership potential.
At last but not least, increase the number of practise case-studies or implementation of them. How can this be crucial? Well, if the workers have the space to try, they can continue improving. The objective of the top team, would not be that of planning and thinking, but creating the opportunity to the rest to improve untill they reach the maximum of their competence.
Now putting those points into a brief conclusion:
Space to growth`
Top team needs to know who is reliable, competent and in what the workers are good
Hope it contributes to this challenge as i desire!

jennifer-long's picture

Wow! This is an interesting and difficult hack indeed. Cultivating smaller, dispersed centers of power is such a threat to the top - empowering others to take the lead will require serious personally secure and confident folks at the top as well as a strong base of like-minded, values-driven people. Not to mention the politics and scalability issues. Tall order. Do it!

darshan-tadvalkar's picture

The real question is do people want to be leaders? How many people want to start initiatives, make an effort in processing all the information assuming it is made available, want to be involved in decision making, etc. Most people are happy to do the bare minimum and live their life. We will have to start with changing the attitudes and thought process of most of the individuals, empowerment et. al will follow after that. Alternatively, organizations can seek out the "driven" employees and equip them to be leaders but then again the first point about information asymmetry needs to be addressed. The incumbent leadership's biggest advantage is information asymmetry, if they are persuaded to let it go rest of the points are relatively easy to implement. In fact, we see some variants these already in practice in local programs such as a local sports club, church or a community centre. The buck stops at changing the attitude of leaders to be more accommodative or the rest of the people to have leadership aspirations.

I propose the mother (in my opinion, of course) of all challenges: how to change the way people think? The answer may lie in management, philosophy, spirituality, religion, neuroscience, environmental factors, etc. (not an exhaustive list) or a combination of these fields.

judy-nelson's picture

Excellent job of articulating the issues in a few words. I'm anxious to hear more about ways to help executives let go of the power they think they have in order to empower the organization.

And, thank you for this incredible opportunity to participate!

Judy Nelson JD, MSW, CPC
Executive Coach (and former nonprofit CEO for 30 years)

kc_1's picture

How do you get people to talk to one another? ...Creating spaces where people can talk and have a relaxed conversation may be a step in the right direction. Though differences, this might be as simple as starting with a correctly subsidized company cafeteria and doing away with the 'executive cafeteria' and getting rid of all those working lunch meetings.

Why not just sit down in the cafeteria next to someone who you don't know and strike up a conversation?

A standard business casual dress code, something...., anything... to level the playing field. The have's and have nots, class, status, all that has to go. Example, an "open door policy" means nothing if your invisible status shield is hanging across the door jamb.

When you're at work, it's not about you, it's about the company. If employees 'get' that it's about the company and not about 'them', more of us would have a better perspective on work/life. Warner Brothers: Sheepdog and Coyote cartoon... dehumanize the work to humanize the relationship and you may be surprised where your leaders come from..

kjell-selander's picture

Leaders will pounce on these ideas with great enthusiasm. Neuro-economic research is not easy to dismiss, however, it will be a tough journey to break down the hierarchies that constantly defends itself against new ideas, partly unconsciously.
It is probably not in human nature to relinquish power. The good thing is that both brain research and its offshoot, neuro-economy, well describes these mechanisms. It might not be hopeless. Without flattering, I would say that Mix Fix and all its members,are helping to pave new roads.

ehab-abbas's picture

Here's a suggested framing of the challenge question: What if we were able to invent a leadership model that enabled the mass production of best-in-world leaders (competitive advantage in leadership development) so that everyone within her/his own business sphere becomes a true leader!

What leadership model can enable this quest? I'd argue that none of the existing models is good for that purpose. We need to reinvent leadership. We need a business model that takes the notion of leadership from the realm of art to the disciplined framework of applied sciences; from the scarcity of the gifted few to the abundance of the masses; from an abstract notion to a process-based activity that can taught, managed and measured.

Will that makes us all leaders? You bet, and followers too! Leadership/followership will become situational not hierarchical... And when we all share a universal leadership model, irrelevant of our culture, gender or seniority, individuals will know when and how to practice each.

mike-myatt's picture

Syndicated Leadership is nothing new (I've referred to it as distributive leadership for decades), it's just missing in organizations that have flawed/weak leadership. It’s one thing to hold a leadership role, but it’s quite another thing to actually lead well. Leaders who don’t understand the value of distributable influence, knowledge, authority, and responsibility are not leading, they're controlling. This not only limits opportunities, but it also creates huge contingent operating liabilities.

One of the great challenges for any leader is to break down cultural tendencies that foster silo-centric thought patterns, and push leadership to the very fringes of the enterprise. Savvy leaders understand that controlling influence, knowledge, or decision making diminishes value, while releasing these things creates value - think open source not proprietary.

The solution to this challenge is to first understand the problem. What we're really talking about here is the difference between real leadership and playing at leadership. This isn't an issue of cognitive limitations, it's a matter of lacking leadership ability.

The solution is to build companies around a shared purpose and a culture of leadership. When an organization ceases placing non-leaders in leadership roles, understands you don't train leaders you develop them, when unlearning becomes as valuable as learning, and when people and purpose are viewed as more important than short-term profit you'll be hard pressed to find a leadership problem.

kerry-davis's picture

I believe this topic is well worth exploring! It seems particularly important for organizations that push projects "because the CEO (insert name here) wants it" or for organizations where just having a conversation with executive leadership must be a carefully scripted and planned event if you are not one of the executive team. I believe this topic dovetails well with a passion of mine in regards to servant leadership - where leaders serve others, hence developing them and utilizing their skills and expertise appropriately, engaging them in the business of the organization in order to make a difference.

brett-kokot's picture


I agree with you wholeheartedly that having engaged and empowered employees will be critical moving forward. The problem I think most companies have is that they want employees who behave like they are engaged and empowered when the organization does little to engage, empower, or reward those behaviors. This is why I feel the need to add in "compensated" to your list. I firmly believe that until organizations are willing to embrace radically new models of compensation that we will struggle with these same issues.

The status quo is held in place by the attitudes of two groups. Those who are in/on the track towards high level executive positions, who enjoy the dramatically increased compensation that goes with those positions. They are motivated to keep the current structure in place, because if true leadership and decision responsibility were more distributed, it would only be a matter of time before compensation would be distributed as well.

By the same token, those who are not on the track to be on the executive team or in a senior leadership role do their own part to reinforce this cycle. The common response to complex issues is that something is "above my pay grade". The income inequality allows lower level employees to feel comfortable abdicating responsibility to those who make dramatically more money.

Few companies do an adequate job of creating an incentive structure that will motivate employees at all levels to "give their all" tackling complex organizational problems. This is why I think that if this topic is picked, there should be a significant focus on new compensation models as a way to encourage engagement and empowerment.

john-morris's picture

Included in the challenge entitled "Syndicating the Work of Leadership" are several complimentary ideas. I will focus on one of the most interesting: that of "cognitive limits".

The whole idea of "leadership limits" is fascinating and shows up in the popular technical concept of "bandwidth", as in "we don't have enough bandwidth to deal with your project". Anyone who has taken any information theory will recognize of course that bandwidth also has a very technical meaning associated with information theory, and although the popular use of the term may not be strictly correct, it is nevertheless very useful. The phrase "impedance mismatch", from electrical engineering, but which also has an information content possibility, is another similar although less popular management phrase.

What are we to make of these popular expressions of our inability to do everything we need to do, as leaders and as front-line staff? As the challenge suggests, we may consider the possibility that "management bandwidth" itself is a scarce and valuable resource. Or better still, "good quality management bandwidth". If we admit that there may be truth to the popular idea that the rate of business and social change is accelerating, then it would be possible to make a nice model of "decision making capacity versus incoming rate of required decisions".

Fortunately, this has already been done, as many readers will recognize. Information theory was only the most technical expression of the relevant science. But cybernetics, as the self-styled "science of control", starting post WWII, explicitly concerned itself with exactly the questions at hand here.

The history of cybernetics is interesting from a perspective of the history of management science. Cybernetics never really took off in North America, except as information theory. Cybernetics was much more popular in Europe and especially Soviet bloc countries. There was a reason for this. In a freer society, the millions of decisions that are made every day are guided by the most powerful cybernetic mechanism ever invented, which is the price mechanism. As a result, the information overload that cybernetics is intended to combat, was less a problem for managers and executives in North America. However, in more statist Europe, or even more so in centrally planned economies of the Soviet bloc, lacking the price mechanism, but having a very powerful academic and mathematical tradition, the state sponsored a flowering of cybernetic research.

I have worked with many senior IT staff who were educated in Eastern Europe. Both computer science and management grads typically were very competent mathematically, and had all taken the requisite cybernetics courses. Most the courses they took were of the "plant floor organizing" type of cybernetics that could be compared to what industrial engineers do in North America. But those who had spent time in executive suites would also report that management practices there, when not corrupt, were sometimes informed by the "cybernetic vision". (As a footnote here, and on the topic of central planning, perhaps the most notorious example of the attempted application of cybernetic technology occured when Salvador Allende, in Chile, hired Stafford Beer, well known "enthusiast" for cybernetics, and author of the famous Brain of the Firm, to "cyberneticize" the Chilean economic. Events intervened of course -- the sort of events that underscore the weakness of theory that ignores the realities of power. But intriguingly some of the principals involved in the adventure ended up at Stanford and founding one of the first companies touting workflow and office automation.)

But, politics aside, and whether as cybernetics itself, or some newer instantiation of a "science of control", my point is that the topic is eminently worthwhile as both a field of study and a field likely to render value to real business leaders. I've always been of the view that the topic in fact is "understudied", that it is often obvious when considering various business challenges or even debacles, that at least some of the challenges were related to the plain facts of management overload. As the pace of change in North America speeds up, modelled as an incoming stream of "variety", the pressures on management will increase. And then cybernetics, a science honed in the world of East European central planning, might find use in the increasingly large collosi here. It might even be ironic.

The challenge makes several concrete suggestions for improving the situation. I believe that a very good start would be definitional. What exactly is it that is in short supply? What exactly are "executive decisions" and can the answer be quantified as an object of study? If so, then executive decision making can be modeled. And as we know from the growing world of simulations, powerful insights can be garnered from simulation. So, before speculation, let's start with definition and simulation.

Bravo for an excellent challenge.

peggy-mcallister's picture

What we are ultimately talking about here are higher levels of "engagement" and that old bugaboo "empowerment" from a leadership perspective. How many different ways do we need to come at this before we find an approach that is sustainable? We need to ask ourselves "what is it that is really holding the old command and control system in place?" And, "what is the payoff (that execs and their organizations) will find difficult to give up if a more distributed form of leadership is adopted?" Until we get down to that level, we will continue to be rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic :-)

Such new forms of leadership require trust, authenticity and humility on the parts of our leaders, in essence a new level of consciousness. How do we support that?