Does self-organisation still need leadership?

In the context of agile project work, the question repeatedly arises as to what role leadership still plays, or whether leadership in connection with self-organisation is not even superfluous. It is certainly necessary to deal with the function of leadership in general.

In his classic “Leading, Achieving, Living”, Fredmund Malik outlined the tasks of effective leadership as follows: 1. providing for goals, 2. organizing, 3. deciding, 4. controlling and 5. developing and promoting people.

Projects and work in general need a direction, an overarching purpose and specific goals. In self-organized teams this can probably be formulated by the team itself. However, the question is whether what the team defines for itself fits the direction or strategy of the company. This requires close coordination by a manager, a representative of the team or even the sponsor of the project. Otherwise it can happen that the project and the team develop a life of their own and move away from the company’s purpose. Once the direction has been set, however, the team can organize itself. This does not require external “interference” or leadership. If the team has the right competences, then the team members themselves know much better what they have to do when, where, how, with what and when. Only at the interfaces between the temporary (project) and the permanent organisation (specialist departments) communication and coordination is then necessary. However, this does not require leadership.

The third function of leadership, decision-making, can also be performed by a competent project team. For this purpose it is necessary in the company that on the one hand the direction is clarified and on the other hand general rules for decision-making or also decision competences are clarified. A project team usually has much more information at its disposal than a single manager, who is often relatively far away from the scene. Only networking with higher-level decision-making bodies, in the event of escalations in the project or in the event of a conflict could be a task that a manager from outside the team could take on. This also applies to control, which cannot be carried out “top-down”, but by the team itself with the possible support of a “mediator”.

But when it comes to the development and empowerment of people, leadership plays an important role. It can observe much better from an external perspective which employees need support, and implement it itself, with the help of HR in the company or experienced team members. This is often a clear expectation of employees to the organization to encourage and support them in parallel to their work. Especially for “Generation Z”, this is actually the main task of an organization and of management: development and support in the concrete everyday work. Organising, deciding and controlling are not really part of this.

So what does all this mean in concrete terms for leadership? Leadership does not become obsolete, but is transformed into “supportive”, some call it “serving” leadership. The manager places him or herself at the service of the project team, providing support where necessary, no more and no less. The manager is rather a moderator between the different “worlds” of an organization or at the interface to external partner organizations. He or she mediates between the participants, supports the project team as a whole where necessary or only individual project team members. For this purpose, competences are required above all, which we call “leadership without (disciplinary) power” and which are based on social competences.

However, leadership can also be organised “collectively”, i.e. without being assigned to one person. In recent years, various models have been developed and tested for this purpose, such as the holocratic circle organization (“Holacracy”) or the “Teal Organization”. Bernd Oestereich and Claudia Schröder define collegial leadership in their book “Das kollegial geführte Unternehmen” (The Collegially Managed Company) as “leadership that is dynamically and decentrally distributed among many colleagues instead of centralized leadership by a few exclusive managers.

Depending on what the situation in the project requires, either someone from the team or the entire team takes the lead. The main reason for this is that the more dynamic and complex the project business or context is, the less able individual central actors are to decide or act alone. Leaders continue to exist in an organization, but are no longer “superior”, exclusive and for unlimited periods of time, but rather situational. It is not “above” or “below” in a hierarchy that is relevant, but who is the right person for which (leadership and decision-making) needs.

Author: Reinhard Wagner, CEO of Tiba Managementberatung


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