Gut Check: Are You Ready for a World Without Leaders?

Vince Molinaro, Ph.D. Blog

It’s a fascinating time to be in the leadership development industry. I’ve spent most of my career helping leaders find their way. There have been lots of challenges. Even so, I’ve never seen as much disruption as I’m seeing today.

At one level, the industry is being called out for not helping companies build better leaders at a time when we need strong leadership the most. The loudest voices challenging the industry come from Professors Jeffrey Pfeffer from Stanford and Barbara Kellerman from Harvard Kennedy School.  I believe many of their criticisms are spot on.

Perhaps it’s not that surprising then, that many organizations are challenging conventional notions of leadership.

Cie. Financiere Richemont SA has recently eliminated their CEO position. That’s right, no CEO running the company. Several reports indicate that the iconic Swiss watchmaker – responsible for the Cartier, Montblanc and IWC Schaffhausen luxury brands – will not replace current CEO Richard Lepeu when he steps down early next year. Instead, the executive team will report directly to the company’s board.

What’s really interesting is that analysts did not panic at the idea of an iconic company moving forward without a CEO. This was largely because the restructuring puts board chairman Johann Rupert, founder of the company, more or less in control. Rupert told The Wall Street Journal that the changes were undertaken so that each of the company’s brands – or maisons – would be able to react more quickly to market conditions.

“One individual cannot be held responsible,” Rupert told The WSJ. 

Rupert is not alone in challenging convention. Zappos, the online shoe retailer, has been leading the charge in challenging traditional views of leadership. They have been profiled and studied for a decision to jettison a traditional vertical hierarchy and embrace a system based on a “holacracy” – where individual employees are encouraged to self-manage.

These experiments are valuable, but I’m left with the question: is a world without leaders truly viable?

Even among these early adopters like Zappos, the transition has been difficult and progress has been mixed at best. More recent updates on the Zappos holacracy indicate that some employees do not do well in an environment without leaders. Zappos has fallen a few rungs on various ‘best employer’ surveys and rankings. And turnover at the company over the last year has reportedly approached 30 percent.

These examples were top of mind for me recently when I was in New York City meeting with the head of talent for a large financial services company. When she assumed her role, the company had a whole host of internal leadership development programs that weren’t really adding value, so she discontinued all of them. The reaction to her bold move? Nothing.  She said none of the leaders and employees in the company noticed, let alone complained.

So how are we to make sense of these examples? Is this the end of leadership as we know it?

I don’t think so. All my anecdotal evidence from travelling the world and talking to leaders confirms that the problem we have is not with the idea of leadership, but the execution. Put simply, we have too many leaders that aren’t accountable and not living up to their expectations.

I believe leadership is and will always be vital. For example, recent research on leaderless organizations suggests that in the absence of a formal leader, one will emerge as a matter of necessity.

A study profiled in the Harvard Business Review indicates that there is a high degree of neural synchronization between leaders and followers that is not as present between followers and other followers. The implication is that it’s much easier to get an effective leader and follower on the same page than it is to achieve consensus between followers. It further suggests that even among a community of followers, certain individuals will rise to the occasion organically and take on the functions of leadership.

I think the interest in leaderless structures and systems, and the abandonment of leadership development, are driven by the same thing: under-performing and unaccountable leaders. We are then left to ask ourselves: is there a better way?

There is. It’s about being truly accountable as leaders. Without accountability, you run the risk of becoming irrelevant and that will mark the end of your own leadership.

This week’s gut check asks: are you ready for a world without leaders?

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