Should we move away from individual leaders and instead focus on collective participation in leadership? Professor Joe Raelin thinks so.
We recently discussed with him his current MIT Sloan Management Review opinion piece “Rethinking Leadership” in which he proposes “a new approach to the practice of leadership — and to leadership development.” Raelin calls for the diminishment of individual leaders in favor of the practice approach, a new movement that sees leadership as occurring as a collective practice rather than residing in the traits or behaviors of particular individuals. Currently, the movement is in its infancy, but Raelin has assembled a team of 18 of the most progressive contemporary worldwide scholars on leadership, who are joining him in producing a new volume (due out next year from Routledge) on what they are calling L-A-P, or leadership-as-practice. The L-A-P movement is less about what one person thinks or does and more about what people may accomplish together. It is thus concerned with how leadership emerges and unfolds through day-to-day experience.
“To find leadership, we must look to the practice within which it is occurring,” explained Raelin, suggesting that individuals studying leadership are looking for it in all the wrong places – such as in the minds of executives. But if we were to adopt the practice approach, what might be its practical value to businesses? Raelin points to many ideas and examples to extol its applicability, first of which is that if we release leadership from individuals, it can be thought of as a fluid practice that allows for adaptability and change. “If we can understand and reflect on our practice, we can reconstruct it in light of our reflections and on behalf of our mutual interests,” Raelin pointed out, “in other words, let everyone build leadership together.” Such an approach would develop a capacity in enterprises to undertake mutual action and to cultivate in people a willingness to contribute to the growth of the community and share knowledge.
Consider leadership in the 21st Century. Are “leaders” still needed to provide continual motivation? Or would so-called “followers” remain in a state of listlessness until an order is conveyed? And what does this say about independent contributions that “followers” can make to the company? Raelin provided the example of Whole Foods’ well known “tap room” – an in-store beer and wine bar that lets customers sample foods while tasting local wine and beers by the glass. It turns out that the concept came from an employee whose store adopted it as an attraction and promotion. Whole Foods’ decentralized structure ultimately allowed for the idea to bubble up to a such a point that it has now been rolled out to more than 100 stores.
As it turns out, Raelin’s book, Creating Leaderful Organizations: How to Bring Out Leadership in Everyone, refers to being leaderFUL, a strategy that lets everyone participate in leadership not just sequentially, but collectively and concurrently, in other words, all together and at the same time!
When it comes to leadership development, Raelin noted that “if we are interested in developing leadership along practice lines, leadership development will require a different approach from standard ‘leader’ training that pulls managers out of their work settings to attend sessions that presume to teach leadership competencies.” He asked what value may emanate from leadership training exempt from the very site where leadership is occurring? While managers may learn particular competencies or skills, they may not find them applicable to what’s going on back home. Everyone involved in the practice should be mobilized to determine together how their practice ought to be changed.
Leadership development using a practice approach thus calls for an acute immersion into the practices that are embedded within the lived experience of the participants. This would not be a strange idea for Northeastern University and the D’Amore-McKim School of Business given of our intimate understanding of combining theory and practice through our signature co-op program. The parallel to co-op in the corporate environment would be work-based or action learning – another one of Joe’s research fields identified in his selection as the Knowles Chair of Practice-Oriented Education. In action learning, learning is achieved in the very midst of practice and dedicated to the task at hand.
We found that Joe’s work makes a lot of sense. What do you think? Can we have a world where everyone gets into the act of leadership?
Read his Rethinking Leadership article in the MIT Sloan Review.