What it is, What it takes, How to identify one, and how to close the Gender Gap

The Role(s) of Leadership Explained

Jorn Verweij
07 Nov 19

An original article by Decision Free Solutions.

Shown here are a summary and the first sections of the article “The Role(s) of Leadership Explained — What is it, What does it take, How to identify a leader, and How to close the Gender Gap“. The full article — including footnotes, links and the references — is available as PDF [here].

A summarising introduction for busy leaders

Existing leadership theories and models are failing today’s organisations. Not because they are unsound or necessarily outdated, but because they generally fail to fully take into account how the varying levels of complexity of both an organisation’s environment as a whole, and the issues that need to be resolved on a day to day basis, demand different responses from leadership roles.

What is missing is not a new theory or model trying to outdo all previous ones. What is missing is not a sense-making framework guiding the organisation and leaderships in how to approach decision making based on a situation’s level of complexity (the Cynefin framework). What is missing  is a generic model both for what leadership-roles throughout the organisation need to do, and how to identify those who have the ability to do it successfully. 

This article proposes a generic leadership model offering new perspectives on leadership-related findings, and opening up new avenues for leadership-related research:

  1. It defines leadership as a role to be found throughout the organisation (not wedded to hierarchy) 
  2. Explains that the “act of leading” is about creating the conditions to minimising decision making
  3.  Identifies a “high level of perceptiveness” as the key trait for success in leadership-roles
  4.  Explains how this level can be assessed through the observation of behavioural characteristics

This article consists out of four parts. The first part defines what “the act of leading” is about. It not merely tries to define leadership, but focusses on what it is that needs to be accomplished. It identifies a leadership-role as follows: “The leadership-role is to create, sustain and communicate the conditions required to achieve the organisational unit’s desired outcome at minimal risk.”

The second part begins with recognising that those who are in leadership-roles have to adjust their approach based on the level of complexity of the situation, and they have to deal with change (even in what are otherwise stable environments). It identifies the one trait to take on a leadership-role successfully: perceptiveness. As someone’s ability to perceive is constant, it follows that not everybody is suited to take on the leadership-role in any given environment. Four leadership-types, and four types of environment, are identified.

The third and most consequential part explains how to assess someone’s level of perceptiveness. Someone’s ability to perceive can’t be measured, but it can be observed. It is explained that someone’s ability to perceive shines through in a range of easily observable behavioural characteristics. Other characteristics, which are logically linked, may then be presumed present.

The fourth part explores the implications all of this has on the “gender gap” in leadership positions. This part identifies hierarchical decision making as a root cause for the gender gap. It argues that the way to reduce the gender gap is an indirect one: it is what happens when organisations optimally utilise expertise in achieving their organisation goals. As such, the size of the gender gap is a measure of organisational inefficiency. 

The Decision Free Leader A generic leadership model

The approach of Decision Free Solutions (DFS) — “a generic and systematic approach providing guidelines for new and existing methods to utilise all available expertise to achieve desired outcomes” [1] — consists out of steps, principles, and the role of the “Decision Free Leader” (DFL). 

The approach of DFS is built on the premise that in order to achieve desired outcomes at minimal risk, a distinction must be made between decisions which increase risk, and those which don’t. As the latter no longer present a choice (what remains is a logical or obvious next step to take), it follows that decisions are not fully substantiated choices which increase risk. Decision making is thus to be minimised through the utilisation of expertise.

In the context of organisations, DFS states that for organisations to be successful, they are in need of leadership-roles which ensure that the expertise available to the organisation is optimally utilised. The definition of this role, and the elaborations and implications of its elements, results in a leadership model. This “DFL-model” is a generic non-prescriptive situational leadership model.

The DFL-model is 3-dimensional, considering “leaders,” “followers” and “context” together. It puts central not what leaders are like, or what they do, but what needs to be achieved in leadership-roles throughout the organisation. It provides guidelines also in absence of formal power structures and hierarchy (e.g., as found in some organisations implementing “new ways of working”).

The DFL-model is situational: by analysing the context in which a particular aim needs to be achieved (e.g., in terms of complexity of environment and task,  the organisational culture), it can be determined a priori whether the traits (behavioural characteristics) of those taking on leadership-roles are, or are not, essential in being successful in such roles.

Furthermore, the DFL-model logically determines which traits may be required in what context, and how they can be identified through simple observation. This allows for the prediction of performance of both those who take on leadership-roles, and, by extrapolation, of the organisation at large.

The DFL-model is non-prescriptive. Because of the central role context plays, the model is an “umbrella” for a host of contemporary theories of leadership. What is required to take on a leadership-role successfully depends on the particular responsibilities of a leadership-role at a given position, on the resources at hand, and on the environment in which it is to be achieved. Leadership-roles may be transformational, charismatic, authentic, servant, shared, distributed or still something else.

What sets the DFL-model apart from other leadership models, is that it is an integral part of an overarching approach aimed at achieving desired outcomes at minimal risk through the utilisation of expertise. The consequence of which is that the DFL-model comes with guidelines (based on 4 steps and 5 principles) as to what to do to be successful in leadership-roles.

The DFL-model is based on logic, embraces many existing predominantly “2D”-theories, and allows for the prediction of performance.  It can be readily researched and tested in practice. 

Existing leadership theories are failing today’s organisations

When do they actually apply?

Over the years the author has read his pile of “management” books covering a wide range of topics. Among them are classics like “Lean thinking,” “The Goal,” “Heart of Change,” “Thinking fast and slow,” “Start with Why” and “Reinventing organisations” [2-7]. They can be considered management literature, for providing the interested reader with profound insights and or a new perspective. 

Still many other management books have value and are interesting within a certain, narrower context. But when the topic is “leadership” suddenly the wheels tend come off and with a bump we land at the other end of the management book-spectrum: pulp. Then we, more often than not, hold in our hands something that may be well-written, uplifting, fun and totally identifiable. But ultimately lacking suggestions or guidelines that can be implemented in our own specific situation.

Books on leadership can be thoroughly interesting and thought-provoking. “The art of war,” “Losing my virginity,” “Primal leadership” and “Shackleton’s Way” [8-11] are among those. But you have to look hard to find worthwhile books on leadership. The topic appears to be a carte blanche for anybody to turn their personal experiences into “valuable leadership lessons”. On HBR.org and LinkedIn clever leadership one-liners are the equivalent of the internet’s funny cat videos.

But also more comprehensive leadership theory books, based on research, tend to have bounded applicability. Some studies are only concerned with defining leadership, not with the act of leading. Others only focus on the leaders at the very top of the organisation, ignoring the rest. Or they study leadership in the context of the organisation, but fail to take into account how the varying  complexity of both individual situations and the environment as a whole impact the way it is to be lead. Or they implicitly assume that leaders exert power based on their position in the hierarchy.

Today’s organisations increasingly have to operate in a very dynamic environment, asking the organisations, and its leaders, very different type of questions very rapidly. Some of these questions demand a “traditional” leadership response. Many others need to, and are best answered within the organisation, not at the top. Then there is a small but growing number of organisations operating without a formal hierarchy, where decision making is something to be minimised, and where “leadership” still exists but takes on a different and more fluid form.

Existing leadership theories are failing today’s organisations, not because they are unsound, but because too often it is left to the reader to determine under which circumstances they apply.  

What is missing is not a new theory trying to outdo all previous ones. What is missing is a generic leadership model which allows one to determine for oneself what to do, and which existing theory may be of help in doing it. This article proposes such a model.

This new perspective on leadership may allow you to identify new tasks and responsibilities in your position, wherever in the organisation that may be, and change the way you lead and or the way you view your leader. It may also be the starting point for a range of new ideas of your own — from how to recruit key personnel to how to best run an organisation, department, team or project based on the environment in which it operates.

Assessing the validity of the DFL-model: some of its predictions

The DFL-model is based on clear definitions and logic in which context and behavioural characteristics play an important role. The DFL-model is thus able to make predictions. This, in itself, allows for an assessment of the validity and thus usefulness of the DFL-model. Some of the predictions are the following (and their substantiations are found in the rest of the article): 

  • In organisations where hierarchical decision making is the norm/strictly adhered to:
    • Leadership is associated with decision making, and hence favours those with a transactional approach and an appetite for risk (there is no need to substantiate decisions). 
    • Those in leadership positions, throughout the organisation, are appointed through decision making (where societal and gender biases concerning leadership are at play) and or on the basis of experience (favouring the privileged who have been handed most opportunities).
    • Because decision making is the leader’s prerogative, and decisions don’t have to be substantiated, the organisation will not attempt to identify the expertise which would contribute to minimising the risk associated with those decisions.
    • For all the above reasons there will be a gender gap (and a race gap and a religion gap) in leadership positions throughout the organisation. The size of this gap is a measure of organisation inefficiency. The greater the gap, the more inefficient the organisation operates.
    • Increasing diversity in leadership positions through rules (e.g., a certain percentage must be female) will not lessen the gender gap in leadership positions throughout the organisation (the organisation may comply to the rule but not change). Organisational performance thus will not improve in any meaningful way.
  • In high performing organisations which are successful in dynamic environments:
    • Leadership is associated with creating the right conditions to utilise expertise. This includes creating clarity on the organisation’s vision/mission, transparency, cultural safety, compassion, etc. They thus minimise risk the organisational goal is not achieved.
    • Leadership will make decisions when they have to — when there is no time to identify/utilise expertise, when relevant expertise is not available — and be aware they are taking a risk. When this risk occurs, when more information comes to light, when expertise is identified, leadership will readily reconsider their decision.
    • Those in leadership positions, throughout the organisation, have a high level of perceptiveness — which expresses itself in behavioural characteristics which are in support of an open and safe culture. Expert leadership is the combination of these qualities and experience. This is recognised in the appointment process.
    • Those taking on leadership positions throughout the organisation will, as a group, be a fair representation of the workforce’s composition in terms of gender, race and religion (as expertise has no colour, gender,  form, name, title or religion).

The act of leading

What is “leading” about?

The Oxford dictionary defines a leader as “a person who leads or commands a group, organisation or country,” and leadership as “the action of being a leader”. On the one hand this is hard to argue with — CEOs and bosses are generally considered leaders. On the other hand it is also extremely unhelpful. If there is such a thing as a “good” and a “bad” leader, and if we want to talk about “leadership qualities,” we must first establish what it is that leaders should achieve. When does a leader actually lead? The Oxford dictionary defines leading as “to set (a process) in motion”. But what is it that has to be set in motion, and to what aim? 

If we take the definition of a “leader” literally, then anybody who leads or commands an organisational unit — of whatever size — is to be called a leader. In practice, many organisations often make a distinction between a “leader” (or leadership) and “managers”. This distinction is supported by some thinkers who believe leaders and managers are somehow discrete entities [12,13], whereas others believe that any categorical distinction is artificial [14, 15]. More importantly, however, this discourse is entirely irrelevant to the performance of the organisation itself. What matters is an understanding of what“leading” actually implies.

In leadership literature — a good overview of which is provided by [16] — leadership is usually portrayed as a one- or two-dimensional phenomenon. The focus is often on a person (“the leader”), or the interplay between the leader and its “followers”. What is often missing from leadership models and theories is the environment in which the organisation is to achieve its goals. 

In today’s dynamic, interconnected and increasingly complex world, a “leader” staying clear of all things management related is as rare as a “manager” never facing a situation where leadership skills are required. What is more, there is a small but growing number of organisations where there no longer is a hierarchically defined leader. But even in absence of an appointed formal leader, these organisations still harbour people “taking the lead”. Increasingly, leadership models which consider the actions and behaviour of those who are able to exert power based on their position within the organisational hierarchy — often considering only those who are at the very top of the hierarchy — are of little practical use.   

Today’s organisations harbour many different “pockets” of expertise and specialisms which all have to collaborate to achieve the organisation’s aim, and which all have their own characteristics and unique challenges. These organisational units have to accomplish tasks in situations which may vary from being transparent to complex or even chaotic. Tasks which are to be non-ambiguous, aligned with achieving the organisational aim, requiring resources, to be performed at minimal risk. None of which simply “happens”.

A generic leadership model does not restrict itself to merely defining “who” the leader is, or “what” leading is to achieve, but also “how” it is actually done. It is to take into consideration that leadership is not be restricted to a person or hierarchical position, that leading is to be seen in the context of achieving an aim, and that this aim is to be achieved in a particular environment.

The definition of the leadership-role

In leadership literature there are almost as many definitions of leadership as there are authors. A comprehensive example of a definition of leadership is “a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal” [17]. But merely defining the word “leadership” doesn’t say anything about how it is accomplished, or to what aim.

To be able to have a discussion on leadership which is meaningful in the context of everyday situations, we must talk about what needs to be achieved. We must also identify that we are talking not about a type of person, and not about a hierarchical position either. We are talking about a role: the leadership-role. 

What this leadership-role looks like, what it takes, and how important it is in any given function depends on many factors. Most importantly, however, this leadership-role must be first defined:

Before explaining the various elements of this definition in more detail, the next section will first highlight how this definition based on roles relates to existing leadership research, viewpoints and discussions as well as enduring dilemmas.  

How the definition of leadership-roles relates to existing leadership theories

The definition of the leadership-role provides a perspective on leadership which at times differs radically from existing leadership theories:

  • By defining leadership-roles rather than leadership, the responsibilities are no longer anchored to hierarchy or hierarchical position. Leadership-roles may still predominantly be taken up by those in certain hierarchical positions, but the definition allows for leadership-roles also in absence of hierarchy or other formal structures (e.g., in organisations implementing self-management).
  • The former is made possible because of the underlying paradigm shift: those taking on leadership-roles are not to make decisions, but to ensure that decision making is minimised (see also the next subsection). Naturally, this paradigm shift also has dramatic consequences with regards to the leadership-style required in such roles (see also the section: “On gender and leadership”).
  • Along the same line, leadership-roles, and their responsibilities, are not just reserved to the top of the hierarchy either. Leadership-roles can, must and are taken up by people throughout the organisation. Roles may also be rotated, or be assumed only in a certain context/situation.
  • In the concept of leadership-roles, there is not, by definition, an explicit or implicit “power imbalance”. Power is not a pre-requisite, as the person taking on this role is not trying to control, direct, guide or transform other people or their situation unless this would result in achieving the desired outcome at minimal risk (which is never).
  • The definition doesn’t care whether employees are appointed in these roles, naturally assume them, be chosen by their peers, are recruited, or even recognised as such. By definition, whomever creates/sustains/communicates the conditions to the purpose as defined is taking on a leadership-role.
  • In organisations where “leadership” comes with the job description and or the position in the hierarchy, these “leaders” may not be able to successfully take on the leadership-role. Just because someone’s job description is “manager,” it does not mean these managers are unable to successfully take on the leadership-role. In other words, in the context of leadership-roles, the popular dichotomy between leaders and managers is not only false, it becomes entirely meaningless.
  • By linking the responsibilities to achieving “a desired outcome at minimal risk,” the definition not only provides an answer to the more pertinent question “what is good leadership” [18], it also allows for its assessment (were the conditions to minimise risk in place?).
  • By linking the leadership-role to achieving “a desired outcome of the organisational unit,” it no longer sets the “leader” apart from the “followers” — they share, and are to achieve, a common goal.
  • By linking the leadership-role to creating, sustaining and or communicating “the conditions” for achieving the desired outcome at minimal risk, the definition becomes situational. Fore example, when the organisation’s environment is stable, and where the person taking on the leadership-role is also the expert, a traditional hierarchical form of leadership may be optimal — as the “decisions” made will carry the least amount of risk. In dynamic situations the traditional hierarchical form of leadership will only increase risk (as the expertise required to minimise risk will be distributed, and needs foremost to be utilised). In this situation creating the conditions to allow for self-management may be crucial. Context, alas, is key.
  • By linking the leadership-role to the conditions for achieving the desired outcome “of the organisational unit,” the activities and also the required skills and experience for a particular role will differ based on how this unit is defined. At the highest organisational level the leadership-role (e.g., CEO) may include communicating the organisation’s vision. Within a team (e.g., team leader) it may be pivotal to ensure the desired outcome is understood the same by all involved.
  • Leadership-roles are no longer linked to a narrow set of characteristics, or skills, or activities. Traditional and ubiquitous “leadership training programs” assuming leaders are to make decisions and are “in a position of power” become rather futile. The skills and talents needed to take on leadership-roles successfully vary based on context. Yet there is still an argument to be made for the “trait” or “behavioural characteristics” which is essential to take on the leadership-role in especially dynamic situations. This is the topic of the section “Identifying the right leader”.

The definition of the leadership-role explained

Now a closer look at the various elements of the definition of the leadership-role:

  • The organisational unit — This merely indicates that those taking on the leadership-role do for a given “unit,” be it a team, project, department or the organisation as a whole.
  • Achieve the desired outcome  This can also be read as achieving the “goal” or “aim” of the organisational unit. The leadership-role is thus directly associated with the organisational context.
  • At minimal risk — In absence of unlimited resources, and possibly in the presence of competitors, desired outcomes are not merely be achieved “one way or another”. They are to be achieved at minimal risk. There are two types of risk to be minimised: outcome risk and resource risk. The leadership-role concerns itself with minimising the risk the desired outcome will not be (fully) achieved, or will be achieved against (many) more resources than minimally required. It should be noticed that “minimal risk” is not a quantity which can be measured objectively. But the logic implied is that risk is minimised if the available expertise relevant to achieving the desired outcome is optimally utilised. Someone taking on the leadership-role may not have access to the expertise required to fully avoid risk. Many times the desired outcome has to be achieved in situations which cannot be controlled. Some times the desired outcome may even be completely out of the realm of possibilities. But what can be achieved — and assessed — is the optimally utilisation of available expertise (as explained by the approach of Decision Free Solutions [1]).
  • The conditions — A library can be filled with books written on “the conditions” the leadership-role is to establish for the organisation to be successful. For a certain organisational unit, operating within a certain environment, with a certain established culture, with a collective of people with certain characteristics, a certain book — offering a unique perspective on how to create the conditions for this one particular situation — can be written. Fortunately, the combination of logic and the provided definition of the leadership-role allows for a generic description of what these conditions are. To achieve a desired outcome it must first be transparent to all involved what this outcome is. In order to minimise risk, the experts in achieving this outcome are to be identified. These experts must be able to fully utilise their expertise. This requires that experts and non-experts are able to communicate with each other (to prevent non-experts from feeling the need to control experts), and that “hierarchal decision making” is overcome (to prevent that someone disregards an expert’s substantiated choices merely on the basis of his/her hierarchical position). In the approach of Decision Free Solutions [1] four steps (DICE, [19]) and five principles (TONNNO, [20]) have been identified which comprise the conditions to fully utilise expertise.  This approach also identifies that most organisations will not be able to instil these conditions — which collectively constitute a culture — if only for not having sufficient people with the right characteristics to take on the leadership-role in leadership-roles. Being able to positively identify these people is the topic of the next two sections of this article.
  • Create, sustain and communicate — Here we arrive at the “action” of leading, the process (i.e. creating the right conditions) to be set in motion. It involves ensuring the desired outcome is non-ambiguous, the available relevant expertise both identified and utilised, decision making minimised, and the communication between experts and experts-in-something-else  transparent. In almost all instances, especially for leadership–roles at the “top” of an organisation, the focus is on creating, sustaining and communicating a culture (within a team, project, organisation, whatever). A culture which is safe and not only allows, but actively encourages everyone to bring their expertise to the table in order to achieve the desired outcome at minimal risk. If the culture providing these conditions doesn’t exist, it is to be created. Once created it is to be sustained. At all times the leadership-role is to communicate this culture. Someone taking on the leadership-role may not excel at all three elements, but all three elements are crucial.

An example of an organisation without leadership: Buurtzorg

Buurtzorg is a highly successful organisation that has attracted a lot of attention. It features prominently in Frederic Laloux’ “Reinventing Organisations” and in “Corporate Rebels: Make work more fun” [7,23].

Buurtzorg is a Dutch organisation founded in 2006 whose name translates to “neighbourhood care”. Buurtzorg sets out to provide client care from a holistic perspective. The organisation employs almost 15.000 nurses — distributed over a 1’000 extremely autonomous self-managing parallel teams, supported by training, coaches and an IT-platform — with an office of no more than 50 people and 20 coaches. Buurtzorg’s results are extremely positive across the board: financially, quality of care (patient satisfaction), and job satisfaction.

Buurtzorg doesn’t have a hierarchy, in the sense that the teams aren’t subordinate to coaches, and coaches not to its CEO. Buurtzorg avoids decision making across the board to not interfere with its employees utilising their expertise to provide care to their patients  (as described in more detail in [24]). The office doesn’t come up with rules or protocols, the coaches don’t tell the teams what to do, and the team-meetings are organised such that any informal hierarchy is avoided.

It’s CEO — Jos de Blok —  doesn’t consider himself a leader, as he isn’t needed in providing Buurtzorg’s services to their patients. He doesn’t make decisions.

Yet the importance of Jos de Blok for the organisation — which he founded — is hard to underestimate. Through interviews, presentations, the way he dresses (no suits), his social media accounts and many other sometimes very subtle ways, too, he communicates and sustains the principles underlying the culture of Buurtzorg, and almost personally embodies it (transparent, easily accessible, open, no-nonsense).

The CEO of Buurtzorg successfully takes on the leadership-role for the entire organisation, the way the coaches do this for the teams, and the“facilitator” does this for his/her colleagues during the team-meeting.

Buurtzorg set out to avoid hierarchical decision making and unnecessary rules and protocols from the very beginning. The resulting structure of self-managing teams is widely admired. But this doesn’t automatically mean that other organisations, pursuing other goals, in other environments, are to shed hierarchy and adopt “self-management” in order to improve performance.

A shift from “leaders” to “leadership-roles” does not require radical change

Organisations tend to be complex systems, and this often applies also to the environments in which they have to achieve their goals. As “radical” the underlying paradigm shift may appear to be from traditional definitions of “leadership” to “leadership-roles” as proposed here, the transition towards “minimising decision making” isn’t. In fact, it is fairly easy, and can be done both locally, gradually and reversibly, and without a need to restructure the organisation.

From complexity theory follows that one shouldn’t work towards some idealistic goal, but start with what can be improved in the existing situation. Organisations interested in moving away from hierarchical decision making can do so gradually. Their organisational structure must not be radically changed.

A first step would be to identify which part of the organisation is exposed to the greatest risks. In other words, where in the organisation would optimally utilising expertise have the greatest  impact and greatest return? The next step would be identifying all instances of “decision making” — be it hierarchical, or as found in rules, protocols, procedures, checklists, best practices, etc.

The third step is to work towards creating the conditions to optimally utilise expertise. Which begins with defining non-ambiguous desired outcomes, and identifying the expertise relevant to achieve it, and to what extent it is available to the organisation. The approach of Decision Free Solutions [1] provides four steps and five principles, as well as the role of the “Decision Free Leader,” to guide this process.

Remains the question: are those who are in hierarchically defined leadership positions also automatically suited to successfully take on leadership-roles? If Jos de Blok would step down, what characteristics to look for in the one to replace him?

Can everyone take on the leadership-role successfully?

The collective behaviour and attitude of all those who take on the leadership-roles in an organisation determines how it goes about achieving desired outcomes, and how the organisation relates to its employees, its customers and its environment (see [65]).

To take on the leadership-role successfully requires a single trait (or ‘ability’). Whether someone possesses this trait, and if so to what degree, cannot be measured, but it can be easily observed. In other words, not everybody can take on the leadership-role in any given situation, but, given the situation, it is easy to identify those who can.

The implicit statement the definition of the leadership-role makes, is that to take on the leadership-role successfully you must be someone who cares. Not just because the one who takes on the leadership-role is to achieve a desired outcome for someone or something else (i.e. the organisational unit). Not just because this person is to create, sustain and communicate the required conditions for others. But because to do all this one has to have a high level of perceptiveness. Those who have a high level of perceptiveness can’t help but care — as will be explained in the next section.

But first a quick couple of leadership related Q&A (as found in literature) in support of the idea that being able to identify those who are most likely to be successful at taking up the leadership-role — regardless of the position in the hierarchy — will have an impact on the organisation’s performance:

  • Does it actually matter who the organisation’s leader (the CEO or boss) is? The answer is yes [25-27].
  • Is the leader solely responsible for the success of the company? The answer is no [28].
  • Does the leadership style have an impact on how management performs? Yes, it does [29].
  • Has research identified an overriding characteristic of what makes a good leader? No, it hasn’t. It has merely identified that the impact of (the style of) leadership depends on the circumstances the organisation finds itself in (e.g. type of organisation, type of industry, geographical location) [30-32].

For the rest of the article (PDF), click [here].

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