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The plurality of leadership


Last Autumn, I took a course on Current Trends in Leadership at Tampere University (back then still known as UTA) and it's only today that I have decided to dig into my old files to share some thoughts with you. During this course, all students wrote personal memos reflecting the assigned readings. In this article, I am sharing the academic content of a memo written upon reading the article Leadership in the Plural, by Denis, Langley and Sergi (2012). They introduced 4 streams of leadership:


-        “Sharing leadership for team effectiveness”

-       “Pooling leadership capacities at the top to direct others: dyads, triads and constellations”

-        “Spreading leadership within and across levels over time”

-        “Producing leadership through interaction”


According to my understanding of the four streams of leadership laid down in Leadership in the Plural by Denis, Langley and Sergi (2012), I would tend to say that all of them are forms that may coexist and overlap within an organisational architecture, at different levels (overall organisation, department, or team) depending on the project or function at stake. For instance, “pooling leadership abilities at the top” corresponds to the idea of having Board Committee, a CEO, department managers, or project managers, setting the strategic direction for the “subordinates” or people appointed with certain tasks and responsibilities to execute on their operations effectively. Within the Board Committee, “spreading” and/or “producing leadership through interaction” are likely to be encountered. Simultaneously, within the team in charge of a project, “sharing leadership” may seem adequate to spur effectiveness and motivate both members’ motivation and collaboration although it may come along with the leadership produced through their interaction, which consists of a prerequisite for the work/task to be performed.


In this respect, points of interest to me reside in the questions related to power, accountability, and therefore to ethics.


Power could be defined consecutively as an “ability”, a “right”, “control”, the “ability or right to control”, “authority”, the “official or legal right to do something” in the Cambridge Dictionary. Within a group of individuals, its distribution may demand negotiation and create disagreement and/or competition. I believe that it should be spread among people in the setting of “sharing”, “spreading” and “producing leadership through interaction” while more specifically limited to some individuals in “pooling leadership at the top”. Yet, there may still be people taking power over others in the three first streams according to the circumstances faced. I assume that it should ideally be done considering the outcomes and implications with regard to the end goal/purpose. Still, the end goal/purpose may be self-interested, not directed in the interest of the team, or it could even serve it and yet be unethical because not respecting the organisational standards/code of conduct or more broadly moral values set by the society.


“With great power comes great responsibility” said Uncle Ben in the movie Spider Man. I personally agree on such statement since taking power as an ability or right, it entails the idea of making a decision or taking action, meaning that implications, consequences or outcomes will be contiguous and inevitable as any move brings a reaction in one’s environment – comprising both tangible and intangible elements, individuals, entities, materials. This notion of responsibility broached by the character converges with the concept of accountability, defined as “the fact of being responsible for what you do and able to give a satisfactory reason for it, or the degree to which this happens” in the Cambridge Dictionary. Thus, leadership closely correlates to ethics bearing in mind that power stems from leadership, or that leadership somewhat equals power. When looking at leadership in the plural, I assume that every single individual should adopt an ethical thinking and behaviour, no matter the form of plural leadership at play in the setting.


Although briefly broached in the article, self-leadership merits a closer look to me. It comes as a key premise of any type of social setting/organisational architecture where plural leadership is at play owing to the fact that one is purposefully driven when making a decision or taking action as part of a group. The sense of belonging to the whole somehow favours the spark of accountability and responsibility within the limits (set or evolving) of one’s role, function(s) and responsibilities entailed with regard to the overall group functioning. The individual is indeed a dot within the network (or community) where (s)he plays his/her part as a leader, master of his/her own decisions and actions, although the limits of this self-leadership may be delineated by either the individual (e.g. vertical leadership) or the collective organisation (e.g. sharing leadership, spreading leadership or pooling leadership).


Actually, I could argue further my standpoint by claiming that the limits (or boundaries) of leadership are simultaneously or interchangeably set by oneself and the organisational network (or community), at least to a certain extent, because we are all held accountable and responsible for our actions – not least in our increasingly more knowledge-based organisations.


Then arises the real matter of interest in human thinking and behaviour, the ethical question which should be considered in every particular situation in order to achieve the most preferable outcome(s) and/or mitigate the least desired/positive outcome(s).


Hence, when taking the group (or team) as part of a larger organisation, and further as part of a larger society, this implies the need to fully grasp the whole picture comprising actors with various interests and existing processes and functions – all stemming from the environment – whose interlinkages are more or less significantly relevant. My thought echoes the primary idea of “sharing leadership” presented by Denis, Langley and Sergi (2012), where leadership stems from the dynamics of the team. Yet, I could distance from it because individuals exist, driven with a certain purpose, even taken out of the team context. For instance, we all belong to a broader community at different scales: from a cultural perspective in developed societies where freedom has become mainstream, our dwelling in a specific location and participation in an organisation of interest (such as a club) make room for us to be considered as leaders of our own life; moreover, from a political view, we all have a certain power as citizens.

When thinking and pondering on the notion of power, the idea of “pooling leadership capacities at the top to direct others” seemingly reflects most of countries governmental system, by nature centralised and institutionalised. – Even though the authors didn’t broach the governmental view and focused on the business analysis, I wanted to enlarge the field of leadership to the overall society.


Governmental organisations are expected to set the direction for countries, regions and localities (e.g. smart cities) in the conception and perception bore and embedded in both our individual and collective minds, with the collective (re-)shaped through individuals’ interaction.


This could lead me to the notion of distributed leadership, whose particularity resides in spreading leadership within and across levels over time by means of the example of the technologic breakthrough represented by the blockchain technology. The latter works through a distributed network of actors who perform any type of value exchange (mainly financial so far) with an increased level of trust built among stakeholders. I could push it further and correlate it to the notion of “producing leadership through interaction” since the stakeholders’ interaction comes as a premise for the collective network to exist. The nation of Liberland epitomises this idea of leadership produced through the freedom to partake in the interaction as stated onto the webpage, where one can actually apply deliberately to become a citizen of such new form of participative and decentralised form of nation within which interaction consists of the societal backbone. 


So, what kind of leadership is at play in your organization? Do you believe in self-leadership? Do you believe you are a leader? How to concretely make things work in a system that involves plural forms of leadership? These few questions may ignite the complex change necessary for you to evolve with the times.


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