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Ubiquitous leadership – Leaders everywhere

Quiz time

Which of the following do you believe to bubiquitous-leadership-leaders-everywheree true in respect of business leaders?

  • They are generally overpaid relative to the workforce.

  • Leadership education is optimised for uncertainty.

  • Leaders lead and managers manage.

That’s right. None of them are true. Well at least for most organisations on the planet, ie those built upon industrial era factory principles. Let’s explore why.

Not overpaid?

Can it be right that the CEO of McDonalds makes an employee’s median annual salary every two hours? There is a perception by some that CEOs in particular are overvalued. McDonalds exemplifies the industrial era factory model applied to the service sector. It is literally a well-oiled machine. The only reason humans are part of the machine is because they are fungible technology placeholders. In time, the tech will mature sufficiently to take over every aspect of their role.

Humans are a very marginal part of the McDonalds’ value proposition. But the CEO is the factory manager. He must ensure the factory runs smoothly and from time to time he has to ‘think’, which for the workforce is a potentially sackable offence (“Next time, just follow the operations manual!”).

The CEO value-add is less so in the administration of the factory and more in the application of their cognition. Decisions around adding new items to the menu, entering new sectors and new geographies are high stakes in nature. Given the CEO is the only one allowed to use their brain, it is no wonder they are perceived as deserving of the big bucks.

But this is less about the horsepower of the CEO’s cranium and more about the suppression / squandering of the cognitive potential of the workforce. This model is largely supported by the executive recruitment industry and the HR function. The former makes money out of promoting the exclusivity of the top talent and in continually recycling it. The HR function colludes by perpetuating this cognitive squandering.


The MBA is held in high regard. It is indeed an effective way for an aspiring leader to become familiar with the wider workings of the factory and its interactions with the environment. Whilst administration is important, one might question why leaders need to master it. The counter argument is that running a factory is an exercise in administration – reduce waste, keep the wheels turning and no surprises.

The emphasis on administration suggests the factory operates in a largely predictable environment in respect of consumption and supply. Unfortunately, or fortunately, we have bidden farewell to certainty and are today operating in an increasingly unpredictable and volatile world. Thus organisations are facing an increasing number of novel situations for which there is not a detailed playbook. This requires a shift from administration to innovation. It is good to see the change of emphasis in some exec education programmes. But in most cases, this is a tactical ‘bolt-on’ to legacy / factory content.

Leadership education today largely presumes certainty and thus the next generation of leaders are entering the market ill-equipped to deal with increasing disruption.

Leaders don’t lead?

Leadership in its truest sense means creating a common esprit de corp and galvanising action. The leader might propose the plan, but they need to sell it to the team. None of this is required in traditional business. The mission is to make a handful of shareholders even richer through executing a set of well-orchestrated processes. Thus people are resources not unlike wheat, cement and steel. They need to be of a sufficient standard and they need to be easily sourced, hence the emergence of job specifications. The person’s character is rarely of interest beyond their capacity to be compliant. People management, like resource management in general is based on supply and demand. This is reflected in remuneration. HR is merely an extension of the procurement function.

There is no leadership required with this approach. The mission is not up for discussion and if you fail to make quota, you will be swapped out. Leaders are simply process managers. There is little interest in the employee beyond their capacity to follow the process manual. QED leaders are thus process managers.

It’s not good

So in this increasingly uncertain world, we find ourselves with people at the helm who are out of their depth. By virtue of their experience they are restricted to:

  • Masquerading omnipotence in parallel with preparing their lifejacket / having frantic talks with the head-hunters.

  • Accelerating the processes, hoping that faster is the solution.

  • Manufacturing profitability by driving cost out of the processes.

What can be done?

As you read this, leaders are buckling under the weight of the unknown. Many are reaching for 2019, in respect of leadership behaviours, as a comfort blanket. They are in denial in respect of how the world has changed and will continue to change.

We need to take the load from their shoulders by distributing the burden. In my view, we need to see leadership as less a role, the primary cog in the factory, and more a characteristic of the workforce.

Imagine watching a football match where the captains continuously chase the ball around the pitch issuing instructions to their players closest to the ball. This is both exhausting and inefficient. It will lead to burnt out leaders and missed opportunities. Thankfully, that is not how they play football. The person closest to the action is the captain in that moment. This would be considered a radical idea in the business world. Though some sectors have taken this onboard, eg. luxury hotels.

But even football is constrained by very clear rules. We are moving into a world where there is only one rule and that is to stay in the game. Again we will face a greater diversity of new scenarios and this in my view is the strongest case for diversity in the workforce and a more evenly spread leadership.

I am loath to say this is just decentralised leadership because that still assumes a hierarchy of active cognition. I am pushing for ubiquitous leadership. The traditional centralised command and control model where all big decisions are made from a well-appointed room at a time to suit the leadership rather than the market, needs to be replaced by something more organic, more living. Your hand doesn’t seek the council of your brain when it inadvertently touches something hot.

A ubiquitous leadership model enables the organisation to engage simultaneously on multiple fronts. The organisation of the future has multiple brains that gravitate to where the action is in a higher adaptive manner.

You might say that anyone who has influence over someone else, by virtue of position, capability or influence is a leader. So the recent graduate tasked with overseeing the new intern is a leader, as is the procurement officer who is managing a supplier account.

So returning to the quiz:

With a more even cognitive distribution, it is only fair that the remuneration is equally distributed. This is better for workers and for society as a whole. Leadership education needs to be less elitist and more woven into primary and secondary education. With this model we need fewer managers and more leaders. In a rapidly changing world, the ability to self-configure into transient self-led taskforces is key.

The leap required to operate in an increasingly disrupted world can feel threatening. Many workers will not want to take on leadership responsibilities. They are happy with taking orders and turning handles in exchange for disposable income. Many leaders will feel threatened by this redistribution of power and remuneration. Certainly, the head-hunters and business schools will not be in a rush to dismantle their cash cows.

None of us has a choice. Disruption will see to that. The question is how many of us can adapt and thrive in this increasingly chaotic world. We can start the transformation process now or we can wait until things get really dystopian. I would encourage the business schools to take the lead on this.


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