Lessons for Leaders

Combining distributed leadership and strong CEOs
by Hank Lindborg

Phil Crosby said not all leaders have titles on their doors. According to quality awards, training initiatives, university programs and countless articles and books, leadership should be found everywhere in organizations and be measured as institutional capacity instead of CEO charisma.

A report on the World Economic Forum's Strategic Leadership Project suggests, "Rather than an aria, leadership can be a chorus of diverse voices singing in unison."1

Although workplace participation has been advocated for more than a half century, distributed leadership was the mantra of the last decade. From the perspective of many Americans, however, it needs to be balanced with a desire for the strong, individualist CEO.

The Baldrige Award encourages distributing leadership in systems while retaining a place for the visionary leader at the top. At the same time, authorities such as John P. Kotter have promoted leadership skills for individuals--apart from position or even affiliation with an organization--as a means of career survival.2

Paradoxes multiply as others take lessons from tales of Antarctic survival that extol both rugged individualism and teamwork.3 While great companies can be led by humble CEOs, egotists vie for admiration. Unhappily, sometimes even when leader and chorus seem well matched, we sometimes don't like the music.

For example, among its instances of effectively distributed leadership, the Strategic Leadership Project report cites an organization where, "Employees at almost all levels are allowed--and expected--to act on good ideas without prior approval. All good ideas are funded. Separate business units are built around promising ideas, and leaders at lower levels of the organization are given a chance to make them work."

The company? Enron. Ken Lay is counted among those with the discipline "to practice good old capitalist leadership, using the pull of incentives linked to purpose. And no matter what happens, [to] trust in people and markets." The writers, of course, had no idea of Enron's future, but they captured perfectly the essence of its leadership system.

Many quality professionals share the ideal of distributed leadership, but face the contradictions of relationships and free agency, individualism and teams, practice and principles. What should we do? Begin with four of Greg Hutchins' 7Ps for career development: paradigms, people, principles and practice.4

Paradigms: Understand your workplace. Paradigms are our patterns of thought: what we value, take for granted or even notice. These shift over time. Old ways of thinking linger--and sometimes thrive--along with newer views of the world.

Leadership is shared differently when it's seen as a set of skills, defined as management responsibility for quality, deployed in Six Sigma, measured by Crosby's maturity model (designed to give quality a voice among top managers) or evaluated according to the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award criteria.

What changes do you see in your organization's definitions of leadership, and how are you preparing? If you're experienced in ISO 9000 and are now applying for a state quality award, a shift may be on the horizon. You'll need new skills.

People: Know your culture. Manfred F.R. Kets De Vries uses distributed leadership to identify values central to both the survival culture of the pygmies of Central Africa and high performing organizations ("a configuration whereby leaders are distributed throughout the community and everyone can be involved in decision making").5

For the pygmies, however, distributed leadership (with norms that discourage egotism and promote trust and support in attaining goals) comes naturally in a centuries old culture, but for many of us it's a conscious effort. Beyond the rhetoric, how well does the organization handle both dissonances and harmony? Freedom to disagree and remain positive about one another is a key indicator.

Principles: Don't forget what you stand for. I once asked Crosby to identify quality values. "Quality is integrity," he replied. Leadership at Enron was aligned and deployed---but without principle.

Practice: Focus on it. Leaders have traditionally been valued for their importance in setting corporate strategy. (This is why Crosby wanted quality elevated to the vice presidential level in the hierarchy.) Now--with distributed leadership--strategy, like quality, is to be deployed to every task level of the organization.

Programs such as Xerox's "New Quality" are based on this assumption and build systems to elicit strategic input from employees. However, these efforts rely on corporationwide discipline--practices--developed over time. If your practices don't match your paradigms, people won't lead or follow, and they'll question your principles.


1. Bruce A. Pasternack, Thomas D. Williams and Paul F. Anderson, "Beyond the Cult of the CEO: Building Institutional Leadership," Strategy + Business, First Quarter, 2001.

2. John P. Kotter, The New Rules: How To Succeed in Today's Post-Corporate World (New York: Free Press, 1995).

3. Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell, Shackleton's Way: Leadership Lessons From the Great Antarctic Explorer (New York: Viking, 2001).

4. Greg Hutchins, Working It: The Rules Have Changed (Portland, OR: Quality Plus Engineering, 1998).

5. Manfred F.R. Kets De Vries, "High-Performance Teams: Lessons From the Pygmies," Organizational Dynamics, Winter 1999.  

HENRY J. LINDBORG is executive director and CEO of the National Institute for Quality Improvement, which provides consulting in strategic planning, organizational development and assessment. He holds a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and teachers in a leadership and quality graduate program. Lindborg is past chair of ASQ's Education Division and currently serves on the Education and Training Board.

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