"Nature abhors a vacuum."
Aristotle is speaking about flow.
See the two channels in this stream. One is meandering and the other is more direct. The meandering one has established its own path which is different from the wider stream bed. I've seen this before in streams near my house as a child. The stream bed was dredged of silt, and it looks like a long straight culvert. Within a few months, the meandering curves return. Flow finds its own path of least resistance.
Professor Adrian Bejan writes,
"Everything that moves, whether animate or inanimate is a flow system. All flow systems generate shape and structure in time in order to facilitate this movement across a landscape filled with resistance..."
It applies to the function of leadership in a way that may surprise you.
The conventional view of leadership is that it is a role within an organizational structure. The people within that structure are divided between leaders and followers. It looks sort of like this diagram. Responsibility is set at the top and accountability is to the level above. It is built for order, control and efficiency.
This kind of structure worked for a long time, many millennia, for many reasons. Principally, limited access to education and technology kept many people from advancing beyond the physical labor of the family farm or the factory. These cultural situations acted as restrictions on the growth of this structure. Sources of friction, like these, are rapidly being removed, the result is that the place of leadership in organizations is changing.
By place I mean function. The function of leadership in this older hierarchical model was management. The function of leadership in the future will be something quite different. Instead of managing order, it is creating opportunity for leadership.
The Flow of Leadership
A vacuum is an open space.
Think of two spaces. A bowl full of water and a sponge.
The sponge is less dense, has more open space than the water in the bowl. Place the sponge in the bowl, and the water flows into the sponge until it can hold no more.
Take that same bowl of water, and leave it out on your kitchen counter long enough, and the water in the bowl will evaporate into the air. The water in the bowl is denser than the air. However, for it to flow into the air it must change into water vapor.
This metaphor describes the changes and differences that I see in leadership between the 20th and 21st centuries.
In the older model, the corporation absorbed the raw talent into its organizational structure.
Today, there are fewer corporate jobs, and so people are adapting to a world of independence, entrepreneurism, and networks of interdependency.
This is the difference is between a closed system of a few leaders and many followers and an open system where everyone can function as a leader. It may depend upon how you define leadership.
These changes, however, are not caused by our ability to define words. Instead, it is defined by our ability to interpret the natural changes that are taking place all around us.
Adrian Bejan's point above is that nature's pattern is one of flow from one place to another following the path of least resistance. I recommend his book, Design in Nature, as an introduction to an understanding of flow in science.
The flow of leadership then is to remove the barriers, the restrictions, the obstacles and the controls that bar people from developing as leaders.
Is leadership, then, a function of management or is leadership a function of who we are as human beings?
Or, let's reverse the question.
Are human beings born as management functions? Or, are we born to lead, to make a difference with our lives?
It isn't a question of nature versus nurture in human development.
It is instead a question of how human beings function in modern organizational structures.
It is a question of human purpose first, and, and organizational purpose and structure second.
Remove the barriers that block human beings from fulling their potential, and leadership develops.
Create openness, and leadership throughout the social and organizational setting will result.
Leadership in the 20th century was a product of organizational structure. Leadership in the 21st is a product of human action.
Leaders take personal initiative to create impact, to make a difference that matters.
The flow of leadership, therefore, is the change that results from the human action rising from the individual initiative that fills the open spaces of opportunity to create the impact that is needed in each individual situation.
This means that in organization structure after 20th. century models must change
The role of executive changes from one who manages processes to one who facilitates the creation of opportunity and the development of the practice of leadership throughout the company.
The structure changes from a monolithic hierarchical one to a collection of smaller, networked communities of leaders.
In this respect, companies are no longer simply places of employment, but rather places of human formation.
The transition is not an easy one, but a necessary one. It is not easy because the most fundamental structure of the modern world is required to change. What is that structure? The concentration of power and affluence into the hands of those who are designated as leaders.
Leading by vacuum
The title of this post is a way I have come to describe what happens in an organization that opens up the opportunity for people to learn to take initiative to create impact.
We create a leadership vacuum when we refuse to do that which we are not able to do.
In other words, I only do that which I can do.
This isn't a rationalization for the avoidance of responsibility. It is rather an intentional recognition that each person has gifts to offer to the functioning of the organization. When leaders claim more responsibility, more authority, or more control than they are effectively able to manage, they are at the same time restricting the possibility for the leadership potential of others to be realized.
Here's how it works.
1. Do that which you can do. Invite others to do that which they can do. Be a team of shared initiative and contribution.
2. Celebrate your values by creating a culture of unity and commitment to a shared purpose for your relationships and your work together.
3. Create an organizational structure open to change and personal initiative to create impact.
An open structure of shared responsibility for each person to realize their own potential for making a difference that matters is the future of organizations.
Executive leaders as a result push the responsibility for developing the processes and policies of the company down the organizational chart to the point of implementation. They also are constantly communicating the Why of the companies values along side the How of the companies policies and approach. They do this by being clear how the values of the company are functioning throughout the organization.
Like a stream, openness for leadership helps the organization finds its path of least resistance to create impact.
Like a vacuum, where there is openness to make a difference, people step forward to fill the space provided for them to make a difference. When each person does what they do best through their own personal initiative to create impact, then the leadership capacity of the organization expands to become its greatest asset. This is 21st. century leadership.
This post was published March 4, 2012 as an introduction for two presentations that I gave in Ventura, California, March 16-17, 2012. Here are links to those two presentations.
A follow up to this post was published as Still Waters Still Flow.