Picture the renowned senior consultant breezing into the gleaming corporate HQ of Fortune 500 MegaCorp, for a well-paid gig advising C-suite executives. Now, picture the newly-hired janitor who spends their evenings mopping & vacuuming floors, cleaning restrooms, and emptying trash and recycling cans in a small MegaCorp branch office. Who has more power, the consultant or the janitor?
Almost all organization leaders today wield positional power: the power of a boss to make decisions that affect others. This is unlikely to change soon. But the growth of the network era, where leaders and workers need to connect outside the workplace in order to stay up to date professionally and to be open to new and innovative ideas, is creating a shift away from traditional hierarchical power models.
“One major change as we enter the network era is that positional power (based on institutions and hierarchies) may no longer be required to have influence in a network society.” —Harold Jarche, the new networked norm
It’s increasingly possible to have influence these days without being anyone’s boss.
Influence but no authority
As a consultant in various fields for 39 years, this is a familiar world: one where I have influence with a client but less authority than a janitor. Clients are free to ignore my advice. Sometimes they do, but clearly I have useful influence that typically leads to significant change. (Otherwise, I wouldn’t continue to be hired and — usually 😀 — appreciated.)
Today, far more people work in the gig economy, which has grown in large part because the network era has made it much easier to find and hire specialized services on a just-in-time basis. This development has caused significant disruptions. Two examples: less long-term job security and the weakened ability for workers to advocate for their concerns en masse. However, there’s a positive side.
The network era
The network era is making possible a shift towards decentralized influence and power, and away from the dysfunctional features of hierarchical societal and organizational structures that have led to much suffering and misery throughout human history. Today there’s no reason to pick either positional or network era power. We can create systems that incorporate the best features of both.
Here’s Harold Jarche again:
“…it is up to all of us to keep working on new structures and systems. This is perhaps the only great work to be done for the next few decades. We have the science and technology to address most of the world’s problems. What we lack are structures that enable transparency and action on behalf of humankind, and not the vested interests of the rich and powerful.” —Harold Jarche, chaos and order
This isn’t easy work. When consulting, one of my biggest meeting design challenges is to get boss buy-in. Typically middle management are enthusiastic and onboard. But the most senior decision-maker will occasionally override everyone else in the organization. They make a poor design decision based on obsolete ideas about how people learn and a lack of understanding of how good meeting design can transform communities.
The network era is here. Its effect on power relationships isn’t going away. To improve the relevance and effectiveness of social structures, organizations, and meetings, it’s crucial for leaders to understand and accept the potential and value of decentralized influence.
In 1975, I was stricken with viral meningitis while attending a conference in the former Yugoslavia. While spending ten unexpected days recovering flat on my back in a Split hospital, my only reading matter was an English translation of Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching. Perhaps it’s not surprising, considering the circumstances, that Taoism stealthily and permanently insinuated itself into my psyche.
Ruling a country surely qualifies as a complex undertaking. Lao Tsu’s ancient wisdom suggests we approach such a task — whether it’s a well-cooked meal or a well-governed country — with a mindful attention to detail and action that simultaneously encompasses the big-picture desired outcome.
Leading and following
Gawande updates this advice for modern societies. When working on complex tasks, we have largely moved from the ancient single ruler/leader model of Lao Tsu’s era to organizational models that, to be successful, require many people to be both leaders and followers. As he says:
“…under conditions of true complexity—where the knowledge required exceeds that of any individual and unpredictability reigns—efforts to dictate every step from the center will fail. People need room to act and adapt. Yet they cannot succeed as isolated individuals, either—that is anarchy. Instead they require a seemingly contradictory mix of freedom and expectation—expectations to coordinate, for example, and also to measure progress toward common goals.” —Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto
Atul’s “seemingly contradictory mix of freedom and expectation” — surely a classic Taoist paradox — is at the heart of what I believe to be the best approach to the design and facilitation of events: those complex amalgams of numerous complex human beings brought together in time and space for complex and often unknown or unconscious ends.
As I’ve shared in Leadership, Conferences, and Freedom, the best events I have been involved in offer an environment that gently confronts attendees with their power to influence what happens coupled with the support and expectation that they will exercise the freedom they have been given.
In my experience, once attendees experience what it is like to have a real voice in shaping their event, and what happens when they speak up and collectively build the event they want and need, the vast majority embrace this new approach to define and satisfy their personal and collective desired outcomes.
There are many models of how people behave in groups, and each of them is useful in certain contexts. In the context of organizing and running a conference, how are group culture and event leadership interlinked?
I tend to employ an organic model, in which group members are seen in terms of their uniqueness, rather than categorized by their roles. An organic point of view allows and encourages people to find ways to work together in a variety of complex situations, and leads toward problem-solving that benefits everyone.
An example of organic leadership
For example a conference steering committee I coordinated was offered the option of engaging a well-known, desired keynote speaker for a conference to be held in six months. Initially, his appearance fee was more than our budget could handle, but at the last minute he suggested appearing virtually, giving his presentation on a large video screen, at an affordable fee. We needed to quickly find out whether the conference site could support a virtual presentation.
If we had been using a linear approach to group organization, we would have already chosen the steering committee member responsible for technical issues and it would be her job to resolve this issue. If she were busy or sick, I’d have had to poll the other committee members for help and ask someone to take on additional work. In this case, our committee was comfortable with an organic approach, so I sent a request for help to all the steering committee members, most of whom had some technical expertise.
Because the committee culture was one of staying flexible in the face of unexpected circumstances, cooperatively working together to solve problems, and respecting each member’s unique constraints and contributions, I didn’t worry about treading on anyone’s toes by sending out a general request for help. The outcome: One of the committee members had some free time and immediately offered his expertise, while another, the speaker liaison, told us he thought the speaker would have the information we needed and would check with him.
How do you build this kind of culture for your conference organizing team?
This brings us to the question of what leadership means in the context of organizing and running a conference. Every book on leadership has a different approach; here’s what fits for me.
Author and polymath Jerry Weinberg describes organic leadership as leading the process rather than people. “Leading people requires that they relinquish control over their lives. Leading the process is responsive to people, giving them choices and leaving them in control”. Jerry’s resulting definition of leadership is “the process of creating an environment in which people become empowered.” This is what I try to elicit when working with a conference organizing team.
I also find Dale Emery’s definition of leadership helpful. Dale describes leadership as “the art of influencing people to freely serve shared purposes”. Bear this definition in mind as you work with your conference organizing team. It ties your interactions with them to your shared goal of realizing a vision, in this case organizing and running of a conference.
Who on the team leads in this way?
Unlike the traditional, role-based version of leadership, any member can help build an atmosphere that supports this kind of leadership. Once the seeds of this culture are established, I’ve found that it tends to become self-perpetuating. People like working together in this way. Experiencing a conference team coming together, with the members enjoying their interactions while creating a great event, is one of the most satisfying aspects of my work.
Although the impetus for an organic approach can come from any team member, the conference coordinator is the natural initiator of these flavors of leadership. She is responsible for keeping the conference planning on track and avoiding planning and execution snafus. She does this, not by ordering people around, but through a respectful flow of timely reminders, check-ins, questions, requests for assistance, and appropriate redirections.
Some people have little experience working organically. They may join your team with the expectation that others will determine their responsibilities. Or, that a team leader will give them well-defined jobs to do. Often, given a relaxed and open environment where their ideas are encouraged, they will grow into a more active role. They become more confident in their ability to contribute creatively and flexibly to organizing and running the conference.
A helpful reminder for leaders of every kind
Jerry Weinberg suggests you assume that everyone you’re working with wants to feel useful and make a contribution. He quotes Stan Gross’s device for dealing with his feelings that people are not trying to contribute. “They’re all doing the best they can, under the circumstances. If I don’t think they are doing the best they can, then I don’t understand the circumstances.”
Such a mindset will help you focus on finding solutions to people problems that inevitably arise in any group working together on something they care about.
How do you see event planning leadership? Is your model different? What can you add to these ideas?