Article: Democratizing leadership - Leadership for everyone


Democratizing leadership - Leadership for everyone

If leadership is such a rare and powerful factor in organizational success, shouldnt there be more of it than less? So how do we democratize leadership?
Democratizing leadership - Leadership for everyone

The focus needs to shift from horizontal to vertical leadership development, and instilling a sense of personal ownership and autonomy


A leader who knows himself well, can better relate to his followers and all of this stems from vertical development


“We have limited training budget. We need to decide who receives the leadership training.” 

This is a common dilemma facing organizations all across the world. But is this really the mindset we should have? Given the complex change moving through organizations – slowly bringing down hierarchies while encouraging innovation and entrepreneurial behavior – this thinking is and ought to be transformed as well.

Just think about it. If leadership is such a rare and powerful factor in organizational success, shouldn’t there be more of it than less? And if this is the direction we want to head towards, how do we go about democratizing leadership?

Navigating complexity in leadership

In light of such challenges, the new environment is indeed one of perpetual white water – this increased turbulence was likewise reinforced in an IBM study of over 1,500 CEOs, where the number one concern for organizations was the growing complexity of their environment. Additionally, a majority of these CEOs stated that their organizations were not equipped to cope with it.  

Some of the key contributors to this complexity include information overload, interconnectedness of systems and business communities, dissolving of traditional organizational boundaries, new technologies that disrupt old work practices, different values and expectations of new generations entering the workplace and increased globalization leading to the need to lead across cultures.  

Reflecting the changes in the environment, key competencies like adaptability, self-awareness, boundary spanning capabilities, collaboration and network thinking will be the most valuable to the future leader.

In order to move efforts to develop leaders beyond backdated best practices, the current uncertain and complex environment calls for more complex and adaptive thinking in leaders.

Clearly, one leader can’t do all that alone. This is where spreading leadership capacity in the ever-changing environment comes in handy. By bringing together power in numbers, where individuals have different capabilities and skills – the organization eventually emerges stronger than before.  

Recently, we were engaged by the CEO of a large corporation in the midst of a major change and transformation. Initially, we engaged them in a process – working with their top 100 leaders in driving the changes they needed to implement. But in a later discussion with the CEO, he wanted to know what we would do for the over 1000 managers and line supervisors. This CEO had a keen understanding that while providing development to his top talent was important; providing connected and integrated learning opportunities for all the leaders in his organization was critical for success. In his case, he realized the importance of strengthening the organization’s leadership muscle. By doing so, he also tapped into the collective power of leadership in a more broadly defined manner.  

Empowering individuals through leadership development 

As we go on towards the “how” of spreading leadership capacity and democratizing leadership, we need to keep in mind that leadership in itself has evolved over the years, bringing us back to a question– how is leadership defined?

Leadership is tenacity. Leadership is power. Leadership is audacity. Leadership is transformational. Leadership is also creativity. How then, can we develop leaders according to the wide spectrum of the term we call ‘leadership’? As the definition of the term evolves amidst the complexity of the environment, the methods of development also ought to evolve with the times.

Thus, to effect change, two main areas need to be tackled: 1) shifting the focus from horizontal to vertical leadership development, and 2) instilling a sense of personal ownership and autonomy over leadership development.

Shifting the focus from horizontal to vertical leadership development

For a long time, we have thought about leadership development as working out what competencies a leader should possess and then helping individual managers to develop them. In fact, organizations have grown skilled at developing individual leader competencies, but have mostly ignored the challenge of transforming their leader’s mindset from one level to the next.

Today’s horizontal development (competencies) within a mindset must give way to the vertical development (developmental stages) of bigger minds. Horizontal development refers to gaining new skills, abilities and behaviors. Vertical development is the opposite and refers to the stages people progress through with regard to how they make sense of the world. It refers to how one’s mind can become bigger.  

The challenge for organizations that wish to accelerate the vertical development of their leaders and cultures and push them to develop their levels of cognitive development – will be the creation of processes and experiences that embed these principles into the workplace. Many of our employees want to acquire new skills (horizontal development), but ultimately, they want to acquire character (vertical development). In the democratizing of leadership, I’ve seen many leaders in their early stages fumble with being themselves, with being the leader they think they want to be. Ultimately, it takes a lot of experiences to determine “What kind of leader am I?”

Once that is out of the way, the future leader immediately has more capacity to fully grow within his spectrum and evolve within the organization. A leader who knows himself well, can better relate to his followers. All of this stems from vertical development, and the experiences and learning opportunities one gets. Ultimately, leadership capacity is developed organically, from the ground up – starting the development early on in the process.  

Instilling a sense of personal ownership and autonomy over leadership development

Like with many personal areas of life, employees want to feel like they own their development. Moreover, leadership development can become further democratized, if employees get a better understanding of what development is, why it matters for them, and how they can take ownership of their own development.  The organization and leaders should allow the individuals to self-direct and learn to navigate their career path within an organization. 

This sense of ownership gives life to greater motivation for growth. We are so used to getting feedback and mentorship from superiors and peers – and in this way, we have unknowingly outsourced our own development to well-intentioned strangers who do not know us well, nor understand our specific needs, and do not care as much about our development as they themselves would. This model has resulted in many employees feeling like passengers. The challenge will be to help individuals back into the driver’s seat for their own development. It is, therefore, up to the organizations to implement a system whereby employees aren’t directed all the time, but are given the liberty to explore their opportunities – and in the process, unlock their leadership potential. Each leadership development process should be customized for each employee, with the aim of being a developmental process over time – not something cookie-cutter that applies to all.  

From knowledge to application

Ultimately, the methods that have been used in the past to develop leaders categorically will not be enough for the complexity of challenges which are on their way for organizations (and broader society). Human resource people, consultants, and training companies do not typically have great influence over too many things that happen within organizations – but one area that they do have a strong influence over is how leadership is understood and how leadership capacity is developed. 

The art of practicing this area well is going to get much harder, as it, at the same time, becomes much more important – this is where we can rise up to the challenge and effect change in the organization by making sure that we understand that the true power for transformation lies in the hands of the collective leadership of the enterprise. 



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Topics: Leadership, Leadership Development, #HIPO, #Leadership3.0

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