What leadership for self-organized teams?

With the development of self-organization, hierarchical leadership roles will be reduced. Leadership will not disappear, but it will significantly change: It will become part of the team activities. Defining who takes leadership responsibility within the team and how that leadership is exercised will be part of the team’s self-determination. This video outlines how teams will self-organize leadership. Could this be a next step in YOUR leadership development journey?

At first glance, it could look as if leadership and self-organization is a contradiction in terms and that we do not need leadership anymore if teams are self-organized. But as a matter of fact, leadership is part of any human activity, especially when we operate as a group. So that means that leadership will need to be organized in a different way when we talk about self-organized teams. That is what I would like to outline here.

Leadership transformation

Before we go there, we should recognize that we have already transformed leadership a lot. We have moved from the traditional vertical organization into much flatter organization structures with much broader span of control (see also: Reduce the power of leaders)

This means of course that the traditional “command and control” oriented leadership cannot work anymore, and leaders have already moved into a much more coaching oriented leadership mode.


The next step

We might undergo now another significant transformation. Because in the context of self-organization, those segregated and specialized leadership roles might be eliminated to a large extend. That leadership responsibility could be brought into the team. As a consequence, teams will need to self-organize that leadership responsibility and the question is: How?

First of all, it is important to understand that a team undergoes a certain life cycle. Just like organizations.

Team life-cycle

There is a phase where the team comes together in the start-up mode. Then the team grows and gets organized. It reaches a stage of maturity and might then go through a transformation in order to adapt to certain changes in the environment. That might be followed by a need for turn-around and transition.

In those different phases, different leadership profiles might be best suited to respond to the needs. So instead of having one person who is expected to be good at exercising leadership through all those different situations, the team might choose a leader where the profile is matching the specific needs.

Leadership profiles

For example, we know that some have a more entrepreneurial leadership profile. They are particularly good at ideation, defining a vision and being creative. These profiles are particularly suited for the start-up phase and potentially also for the transformation phase.

Whereas others have a more organization-oriented leadership profile. Those are good at defining structure, holding people to account, defining objectives, etc. That is what the team would likely need in the growth phase and probably also in the turn-around phase.

Yet others have a leadership profile that is more caretaking where helping others to grow and energizing the team are dominant. Those profiles are certainly be well suited in the growth phase and in the maturity phase of the team.

So we see that the team might decide to allocate leadership responsibility based on these profiles and in view of the specific needs of the team.

Influencing skills

I think that we need to understand that in that context, influencing skills will become even more important. We can observe that already. As outlined in a recent article (see What can we learn from millennial leaders?), I have analyzed how millennial leaders operate. I could see that their influencing skills are very strong and integral part of how they exercise leadership in order to bring others on board. Of course, the usage of social media is part of their way of operating.

I am convinced that these influencing skills will become even more important in the context of self-organization. It will drive how talents will position themselves in view of certain opportunities in order to step up and take leadership responsibility.

Instead of moving up the traditional career ladder, talents will be much more agile and will position themselves on the roles that they find most attractive. They will leverage on their communities to do so. They will move to different parts of the organization in a much more agile way in order to gain experience and exposure where that is most relevant for their career development.

Feedback culture

Finally, holding each other to account within the team will be very important to ensure that the group is able to achieve the defined objectives (see also feedback culture) Therefore, the feedback culture will need to be strong. The teams will obviously also hold those who have taken leadership responsibility to account for the leadership service they bring to the group.

I have recently published an article where I talk about leadership as a service (see Leadership as a Service). I believe that this will be the spirit that will be driving leadership within the self-organized teams.

I hope that these thoughts can be useful to gain broader understanding on the future of work. I also hope that this can be helpful to think a bit differently about how you will drive your own career development. It might be worthwhile to look out for self-organized initiatives where you can get involved or to spearhead such new forms of organizations within your company.

More information in my book:

Sven Sommerlatte : Successful Career Strategy – An HR Practitioner’s Guide to Reach Your Dream Job (Springer, June 2023).  ISBN: 978-3-662-66790-3

Click here to find my book

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