Skip to Content

When everyone and no one is a leader

When everyone and no one is a leader

Understanding your collective leadership ecosystem

Professionals are often reluctant to present themselves as leaders in their organizations, thinking that leadership is limited to those with formal leadership roles and titles. They think their job is simply to serve clients and manage their team, but they are also reluctant to follow their formal “leaders”.

I have just published a new academic article, co authored with Ann Langley and Viviane Sergi, in Organization Studies, which explores this phenomenon. How can leadership happen in this kind of environment? And how can professionals see themselves as leaders?

Who are the leaders?

who are the leaders diagramThe ideas we developed were inspired by my research among senior professionals in a 200 plus partner firm. I asked: "Who are the leaders of this firm?" The professionals’ answers ranged from “everyone” to “no one”.

We wrote the research article to make sense of this phenomenon. Our analysis is complex and subtle, but at the core of the paper is a model of the identity dynamics of collective leadership.

Collective leadership ecosystem

collective leadership diagram

Key takeaways from our research

  • Within a single professional organization, multiple leadership identities can coexist.
  • These leadership identities are claimed by professionals, and granted to them by their colleagues.
  • Some leadership identities are centripetal – directing energy inwards towards building and strengthening the business.
  • Some leadership identities are centrifugal – directing energy outwards towards building and strengthening the business.
  • These identities are fluid.
  • Professionals will have particular preferences for how they present themselves as leaders but can also adopt different leadership identities in response to colleagues and circumstances.
  • All of these leadership identities are integral to the collective leadership ecosystem.

What started as a study of a very particular professional service firm has led to insights which turn out to be applicable more generally to organizations engaged in collective leadership.

To be a partner is to be a leader

When I have presented this research to senior leadership groups in professional organizations, I have been surprised by how quickly they have grasped the subtleties of the ideas, and seen themselves and their colleagues in this model. As partners recently said to me:

“I always thought of leadership as something unidirectional, about leading and following, but now I can see that it is relational and constantly shifting.”

I use this model, and the research that underpins it, to challenge professionals’ assumptions about leadership in their organizations. I help partners to see themselves as leaders, to think more expansively about their roles and responsibilities in the firm, and to embrace their role in the leadership ecosystem.  As one senior professional explained recently:

“I never saw myself as a leader of this firm until I recognised myself in your model.”

Leadership identities diagram

Thank you to Sonja at Graphic Harvest who produced this great graphic to accompany a speech I recently gave at a conference for partners of a professional service firm.

Latest thinking

Follow me on Linkedin to be notified of my latest articles, podcasts and research papers as soon as they are published.