Start thinking about leadership structures

It’s an oft-repeated maxim that leaders create other leaders. But without the right structure in place, you might wonder why it doesn’t seem to work.

Structure drives behaviour. If you are not intentional about the former, you will not be able to shape the latter. Too often, in a rush to create results, we focus on symptoms rather than the underlying causes. Next to organisational culture, organisational structure is one of the most significant influencers of them all.

The pathway defines the traveller

On what basis are people promoted in your organisation? Is it because they have displayed initiative or because they have been loyal? Because they have been innovative or because they have mastered the status quo? The way we review people will determine who they want to become.

 It is not the fault of the builder if the architect has supplied flawed blueprints. Our promotion and reward system maps out a route for those in our organisation to follow. If the route to the top is fraught with caution and loyalty, we can hardly expect them to suddenly develop a taste for risk-taking and originality once they get there. The pathway to responsibility determines the quality of the people who will eventually take hold of it.

The entrypoint affects the endpoint

It is common to recruit people based upon their technical skills and expertise, but at the hiring stage we often undervalue emotional intelligence. And this has more impact than we realise.  Later, when we want to develop these individuals into leaders, they won’t suddenly develop social skills or the ability to inspire others. We end up with many specialists but few leaders.

 Our preoccupation with hard skills and hard data means that we can become deficient in the soft skills that are so integral to great leadership. It doesn’t matter what style of leadership is modelled on an executive level, if to get there you first have to suppress those same qualities.

In an attempt to temper these trends, organisations often turn to leadership training. The hope is that a three-day course or weekly meeting about the merits of innovation or endurance will be enough. But you cannot change the course of a river by persuading it to go uphill. If you want real results, you need to dig out a new channel.

The smallest thing affects everything

Structure is everywhere in organisations. While there are large overarching structures that affect everything, micro-structures also reveal important trends.

How is a typical meeting structured? Is it a dialogue or a series of monologues and presentations? What space is dedicated to challenging leaders or ideas? To learning? To feedback? The smallest social interaction can reveal whether we are encouraging people to compete or share, to protect their interests or grow together.

It’s about what’s beneath the soil

So how do we begin to change our leadership structures? How do we construct something new without succumbing to the same traps? In the pressures of the coronavirus pandemic, our attention can be focused on ensuring weeds stay beneath the soil. But if our organisations are to be robust, we have to confront what is unspoken, uncomfortable and underneath the surface.

Is there an emotion that is not okay to feel if I don’t want to be put aside? Our structures and microstructures both reveal and determine how individuals and teams interact, whether or not anyone ever asks for help, and how we respond to failure. If everyone is preoccupied with appearing to be in control, you can bet that no-one is growing into a good leader. But if we confront the problematic aspects of our structures, if we question our underlying assumptions, it might get uncomfortable, but we’ll end up with a distributed leadership culture that enhances our focus, promotes good relationships and fosters good leaders. Maybe even great ones.

Ready to evaluate the leadership structures in your organisation? To create an opportunity for great leaders to emerge? For more information, or to discuss your own development, please get in touch.

Navigating change is now more important than ever. This article is part of six TPCL’s articles on leadership consultancy – and its role in helping organisations engage with the bigger picture while staying adaptable to the present moment. Next in the series: ‘Leadership is part of a much wider picture’.

Co-written by Andrea Cardillo, Managing Partner TPCL Italy, and Christian Scholtes, Managing Partner TPCL Romania, 2020