The Leader Who Had No Title

Cover of "The Leader Who Had No Title: A ...

Cover via Amazon

Since I wrote Leadership From Below in 2008, there has been a steady flow of management books about bottom-up leadership. In The Leader Who Had No Title (2010), speaker Robin Sharma has put together a modern fable on success in business and in life. There are no revolutionary insights in this book, but its speaks to the frustrated, overworked American, which seems to be in the majority. Sharma also avoids being too patronizing. Instead of the traditional format he chooses a narrative form, which incidentally, means that instead of offering any kind of evidence, we are asked to trust the experience of the author indirectly.

We follow Blake, an uninspired worker who is presented with the chance to meet four somewhat unlikely leadership teachers in one day, a maid who is deeply passionate about her job, a surfer and skier who says to lean in on the steep slopes, seek out and face danger head on,  a former CEO now passionate about gardening who explains that business is all about relationships, and a shoe shiner who says you need to be a great person to be a great leader. All are lessons that ring true in the postmodern leadership scene where results only come if you balance your pursuits so that life and work mesh together.

The message might still be a bit radical for most people, although those who have thought about life and death more than once might agree at times:

All those things we believed were so important, things like titles, net worth and social position turn out to be so very unimportant.

As I predicted several years ago, it seems like the Zen of everyday life is becoming key to the western man and woman’s quest to reinvent reality.

But does that mean that hierarchies are going away? Or, does it mean that making a contribution as a team leader, a manager, a VP or a CEO does not matter anymore? Far from it, in my opinion.  The Forbes book reviewer and himself a leadership expert, SangeethVarghese, has it wrong, though, in dismissing the book in Everyone must be a leader. So What?:

Sharma seems to confuse leadership with mere exemplary work. He depicts leadership as a matter not of heading a team or directing change but simply of focusing on excellence in the work you do.

Rather, leadership from below, which is more an attitude to life regardless of your various roles, becomes important even as hierarchies matter. So, both Sangeeth and Robin are right: whatever you do, only take the lead if you mean it.


The Slow Birth of Entreprenocracy: Part III

Digital image of the 1326 Oriel College Charter

Image via Wikipedia

Taking forward the debate on Murray’s End of Management foray in WSJ recently, the new model is, in my view, not exactly Murray’s model.  Instead, it is simply a hybrid of bureaucracy and entrepreneurship. Let’s call it entreprenocracy.

A few weeks ago, I went to a wedding at Oriel College in Oxford, UK. We had a wonderful time and as in all weddings, I eventually had to explain what I do for a living. It was late, so I resorted to the explanation that I was a “persuader”. Needless to say, this prompted more questions. I ended up having to take them through the reality of strategy and public policy as it intersects with many fields but always has as its end game to enact some sort of conceptual change in your constituency and doing so as silently as possible.

In earlier days, when writing my Ph.D on What the Net Can’t do, I described the the process that underlies my own model of society’s work relevant knowledge flow as some type of “convincing” work. The fact that you constantly have to convince someone, your co-workers, your boss, your wife, your kids, your investors, your tax man, your police officer, in order to move on to the next thing in life, improve your lot, and avoid negative consequences of your actions, is actually the most salient characteristic of modern work. In enterprise terms, the new model that is emerging in the 21st century is precisely that, but occurring at all levels of action simultaneously. Even computer systems have to convince each other these days and the best one, the most flexible, wins.

Entrepreneurship is indeed fully dependent on having a persuasive founder, team, board, investor, and first customer. Bureaucracy is dependent on having a rational structure that makes sense to most of its participants, and one capable of organizing actions beyond the whims of individuals. Without sounding too much like the sociologist I once was, I simply put the two terms together and describe it as a new form of organizational governance.

What does entreprenocracy look and feel like? First of all, it is not currently the true and complete description of any organization I know of. All enterprises that survive the 21st century, however, will have entrepenocracy as its dominant logic.

In 1996, my old mentor, Manuel Castells, wrote a trilogy about the Network society. I was at first very fascinated with the concept. In fact, I still am. However, I quickly grew a scepticism towards the Castellsian notions that the network logic had somehow overtaken the former hierarchical and place based logic over a period of a small generation, because of the advances in microelectronics and software in Silicon Valley since the 1970s. The network, while powerful and capable of underpinning numerous innovations in the next decades as well, alone it is not. Rather, it complements and in some cases extends the reach of traditional bases of power, authority. Revenge of the Titans, so to speak. The giants on whose shoulders we stand, refuse to put us down. They start interfering in our affairs.

Leadership from below, the notion that attitude is more important than position in a hierarchy when you try to enact change, is my conceptual contribution to this debate. In my eponymous 2008 book on the subject, I explain how attitude, not position in a hierarchy, will determine whether you get something done or not. What I saw was similar to what Murray sees now. Change. Networks. Failure of top leadership across society. Inefficiencies in large organizations. Now, two years later, I am ready to admit the following: leadership from below is not enough. Leadership from the top is also needed. How? Why? What does that mean? And how is it related to WSJ’s Murray?

First, some formative experiences in my life include working for one of the largest and most complex public bureaucracies on the planet, the European Commission. As part of a 30K workforce from 27 member states, I was able to part take in the grand experiment of power sharing, project based identity and diplomacy that is the EU. Second, I now work for Oracle Corporation, with 105K, among the largest corporations on the planet, and also in its own way a complex bureaucracy. I have also started numerous non-profits, organized myself in action networks and earning absolutely nothing on the pursuit. Finally, early in my career, I ran my own start-up and gave advice to other start-up. In other words, I have experienced the entire value chain of organizational enterprises. What I have learned from this thoroughly multi sector life is the following: while no one size fits all, there are common approaches that work across context. A while back I published best practice advice on e-government in an article called Best practices in eGovernment: – on a knife-edge between success and failure. As I wrote back then, generic success factors exist, and lessons learned for practitioners include:

  • Achieve leadership buy-in
  • Keep technology as simple as possible
  • Get early stakeholder and user involvement
  • Gain momentum
  • Plan for sustainability

The lessons for today’s discussion on the supposed “End of Management” are similar, but there is the need to sharpen the organizational context of innovation:

  • Getting something done is always difficult
  • You cannot do it alone
  • Recruiting believers in what you are trying to do is essential. You cannot skip it regardless how good your idea is, what existing power base you may believe you possess
  • Initially, all initiatives appear to be without structure, but inevitably a structure forms

The theory of organizational ecosystems has tried to explain things like “emergence” in organic terms (see the work of the Society for Organizational Learning, SOL). However, in reality, change in social systems has nothing to do with ecosystems, because humans are infinitely more complex in their motivations than nature as such, although ecosystem could be as useful metaphor a metaphor as anything else, for lack of better ones.

Once entreprenocracy, the fusion of entrepreneurship and bureaucracy has been properly understood….these things will start to happen;

  • folks will be more realistic about organizational change
  • change makers will redouble their efforts to innovate within existing frameworks
  • the value and esteem of incremental innovation will increase
  • energy will be freed up to concentrate on innovation, wherever needed.

How can I say this with certainty? Hasn’t history proven that change is unpredictable? True, but some processes remain the same. The birth of entreprenocracy might be slow, but it is coming.

Beyond MacroWikinomics

World map of the Queen's Dominions at the end ...

Image via Wikipedia

MacroWikinomics, the sequel to the bestselling book Wikinomics is out this week. Should we rejoice? Sadly, no. Sure, the book has raving pre-publication commentary. The topic is cool: the prospect that each and every one of us is changing the world. But unlike the more methodical vision of Bill Drayton’s Ashoka, where “everyone a changemaker” actually refers to taking real actions towards becoming social entrepreneurs in your everyday interactions with your local community, the Tapscott/Williams vision is mostly hyperbole, echoing the cliché that “we need to come together as global citizens”. Just listen to the sound of this phrase at the beginning of the book, taken from the BusinessWeek excerpt of MacroWikinomics:

there is now a historic opportunity to marshal human skill, ingenuity, and intelligence on a mass scale to reevaluate and reposition many of our institutions for the coming decades and for future generations. After all, the potential for new models of collaboration does not end with the production of software, media, entertainment, and culture. Why not open-source government, education, science, the production of energy, and even health care.

what follows is a populist criticism of virtually every institutional framework in existence:

…[M]any of our institutions are stalled, lacking vitality, leadership, and dynamism. It’s like every last ounce of oxygen has been squeezed out, leaving a mess of deflated expectations and chronically underutilized resources.

As FT reviewer Richard Waters writes in his book review of MacroWikinomics, entitled “How the web will save the world”:

The difficulty with books such as MacroWikinomics is that they take interesting phenomena like these, then apply a heavy dose of messianic fervour to produce an absolutist view of the future.

The problem, however, does not lie in messianic fervour. Fervour is exciting, and sometimes warranted, depending on the cause. The issue is the lack of a deeper analysis. You cannot just dismiss all current governments, companies, industries and individuals and say open source collective collaboration through the web will change the world for the better. Where is the evidence? How do you know? What is the better world you are looking for? The problem with most “collective” problems is that each and every one of us has a different view of what the problem is not to mention what the solution would be. This is only one reason why collective innovation runs into problems.

Every decade or so, the visionary discourse of how globalization and technology will change the world seems to gain intensity. Unfortunately, in this case, the visionary talk is cyclical and repetitive. In 1999-2000, the vision every trend watcher was talking about was the “nomadic worker” who would be able to work anywhere, anytime. In my Ph.D, What the Net Can’t Do (2002), I showed through fieldwork that even in such a conspicuous place such as Silicon Valley, nobody really, really believed their own hype or had any plans of acting on it. Venture capitalists told me they would never invest in a company that was further away than a short car ride before lunch. Marketeers and engineers alike admitted they did not themselves use the Internet and its applications the way their advertisements said people would.

In reality, only workers who are willing to accept a rapidly descending status and relevance in the workplace, and who previously have worked up quite a reputation in some relevant sphere, can afford to go off the grid. Even for them, every minute counts. Every minute away from bosses, customers, markets, cities and inspiration, or from friends and family for that matter, takes away from your presence, relevance, and engagement with those who do tend to stay in one place or at least meet up face-to-face on a regular basis. In short, quantity time is still more valuable than quality time. Presence is still more valuable than virtualized co-presence.

In 2010, the visions are even grander. Now, the web will save the world, apparently. Fine, maybe it will, after a while and together with a bunch of interrelated and non related phenomena. However, and regardless, one cannot just assume that most institutional frameworks, indeed anything that is not related to individual expression, lacks legitimacy. The age-old visions of direct democracy share the deficiency that hampers any such vision of change: the lack of awareness of how human motivation works. I do not discount that the web has facilitated and indeed spurred many ongoing experiments in mass collaboration. It is not unlikely that a few of them will change the world as we know it, or at least alter important aspects of our world. However, social change is complex.

First of all, in all honesty, many institutions, governments, and collective actors are alive and well. Sure, there are many things wrong with any given healthcare plan, school or public agency, but the alternative is not so clear. Individualism is great, for sure, but will, arguably, never completely outgrow community. The two seem to build on each other, even complement each other. Society will always fight back.

Or, maybe we should start with something a bit more basic: society exists. When will the visionary, absolutist, determinist, technocrats realize this? Their arguments are quite stunning, really. All in the name of progress. Progress from what? To what? This reminds me about a long standing discussion I have with a dear friend about whether progress actually exists. He claims all of civilization, all advances in societies and markets and capital show progress. On what grounds do people tend to claim progress? What is the measure? For him, of course, with the frame of reference being the “great civilizations” of Greece, Rome, and the British Empire, it is simple. Wealth, art, industry was created and some of it is timeless and important. Well. Yes. However, every time we claim to progress, the counterargument can be made, some (other) people are worse off. So, for instance, the surplus of the colonies created palaces and industry in Europe. Conversely, it set Africa on a path of perennial decline for centuries. Or, as Richard Waters writes:

It would be nice to believe that Tapscott and Williams have history on their side, and that projects such as Linux foretell a world where anyone with an internet connection and an hour to kill will give generously of their cognitive surplus.

The problem is, most people’s cognitive surplus is quite limited, measured and must be applied sparingly to only the most important projects at hand. So, I might get involved in my kids’ school, a charity or two, a local political debate, or in global debates in my field of expertise. But, I will not get involved in everyone’s schools, all charities, all political debates and in global debates across the globe. We are all situated actors with our own bounded, focused frame of mind. We cannot focus everywhere. We cannot spend all of our energies on all good things. We must choose and we do. Daily. Ruthlessly. Most of us do it based on an analysis of what means the most to us. What we care the most about. Most of all, we make the decision based on where we are. Place making is difficult. Only with labour do we make the world our own. And when we do, we celebrate that, try to enjoy it, rather than look elsewhere. Psychologically, that is also the sane attitude. If you walk around trying to engage in anything, anywhere, you are delusional, and most likely, ineffective.

Empowering citizens is a great aim. I believe it can happen. I believe it does happen. It just does not happen all the time, and the web is not the cause of it. And, we need institutions to organize ourselves. Every time a problem is complex, recurring, or demands fair solutions, an institutional arrangement seems a quite fruitful way to go. Also, there is nothing morally wrong with organizing human societies in representative arrangements, governments, bureaucracies, and corporations. This is not to say that checks and balances are not needed and that the web is not useful in this regard.

In 2008, I wrote the book Leadership From Below. I argued that leadership is more about attitude than position. My intention was not to say that formal leadership will disappear or has disappeared. Rather, what I was pointing out is that influencing others demands that you acquire followers, or even better, that you simply channel the energies that are latent in the group you are working with. For instance, you will be more successful at innovation if you work with other people’s ideas, shaping them together rather than always asking people to work on your ideas. This applies almost always, and even if your idea is better. Psychoanalysis has brought forward this insight, although it must have been known to man (and especially women) for centuries. My grandmother knew. My mom, my wife, and my daughter all know this. I merely write about their insight and sometimes discover their plot as an afterthought.

MacroWikinomics is a nice phrase and will likely sell quite well. Its ideas, however, are shallow. There is nothing wrong with collaborative innovation but it is not at all new or completely web related. It would be nice to believe that every problem requires a given amount of resources, say 1, 10, 100 or 1000 man months. But this is not true in practice. A problem can get solved just like that, if an innovative idea comes forward. A team might be astonishingly inefficient or very efficient, depending on what happens in their group process. A huge problem might actually require an enormous amount of energy to resolve, but the exact quantity needed can seldom be determined beforehand.

Arguing against the limitless opportunities of the web sometimes feels like being against fighting climate change, aids, or corruption. In short, it is perceived as being against progress, against the politically correct, against reason itself. However, my cause is not to try to stop positive change. But naïve faith in the impossible: namely the belief that everyone we will change the world for the better simply by taking part in online collaboration surely is also damaging to the intellect, and possibly to society.

Information technology is good for many things. However, whereas IT excels at underpinning efficiency and effectiveness of relatively well framed challenges, its track record in underpinning boundless innovation in any given area is shorter, and less distinguished. We simply do not know enough. Could the web be essential to solving the world’s most pressing problems? Possibly. Could it at least help. Sure, but saying that is so trivial that one does not need to write a book about it.

Instead, what we need is a cognitive framework for what each of us can do where we are, and an awareness about what has been done by those we are surrounded by. The old phrase “on the shoulders of giants” used to mean that we all build on our ancestors. The new phrase might become “on each other’s shoulders”, but I just would not bet on it yet. It is absurd to purport an absolute faith in the wisdom of contemporaries. History shows that societies that do so, only do so at their own peril. Look at the latter parts of the Greek, Roman, British Soviet or US empires. They all became completely paralysed by the obsession with running themselves. They stopped caring about anything outside themselves. Obsessing over their own inventions, they thought themselves invincible. From this perspective, the web might be the last innovation of the West? Who knows?

Mass collaboration by individuals, whether or not they are connected, co-located, know each other or not, has obvious limits related to the inefficiency and psychological complexity of masses. The old crowd psychologists, from Gustave LeBon onwards, were sceptical of the masses. Tapscott and Williams seem overly optimistic. The truth is somewhere in between. The web is a platform, a very efficient platform for innovation. However, it is not a panacea. In itself, it does not solve anything. Only humans do. Sometimes.

Bottom-up lessons from European CEO magazine

President George W. Bush, left center, joins f...

Image via Wikipedia

European CEO magazine is currently running a story called: What’s missing from this picture? Oliver Mack, head of learning at Common Purpose writes:

“MBAs…left managers in a bubble…eventually we all need to step outside of our team or department where our position makes us the boss”.

The reason is that the problems we need to solve typically take place outside of our formal sphere of influence.  Mack continues to argue for education based on challenging leaders in “real life situations that shake them up” rather than relying on tutorials, leadership models, and Powerpoints from MBA professors.

Despite the obvious need to somehow involve professors, one could wonder what puts MBA programmes at such a disadvantage in terms of providing case study experience.   Also, Mack’s alternative to an MBA is a two day workshop, hardly a substitute, I would say.   However, Mack is essentially spot on: leadership from below is a significant source of power in the network society and knowledge handled top down won’t cut it.

So how can we all learn more self awareness?  Based on recent experience, I suggest keeping a job, having kids, remaining happily married, and living to tell the tale.   None of those situations really involve top down authority of any sort.  Only that there are very few hours to sleep should you choose to pursue that multi-tasking approach.  I would gladly take an MBA instead, if I thought it would help.  Mack’s two day workshop seems to be an easy way out, even if he will shake me up.

Cultivating Leadership

ASCII to Binary encoding of the word "Wik...

Image via Wikipedia

– The leadership I want to explore here has nothing to do with position or authority; it is about influence and responsibility, it’s about leadership from below or from within, writes Patrick Bridgeman, in a new article on Cultivating Leadership in this Fall’s Positive Life.  Bridgeman is Editor of Positive Life, an Irish publication which aim to deliver uplifting, informative articles and information designed to enhance the quality of readers’ lives.  He continues:

I want to equate leadership not with being in charge but rather with the ability to inspire initiative and new thinking in those around us. At the core of this approach is the capacity to navigate new paths, build teams and broker between different points of view…

Sounds good to me! Although, I would not say that there is a contradiction between being in charge and being perceived to be in charge, nor between inspiring and actually being responsible for inspiring others.

The important thing is to maintain one’s grounding and facilitate other people’s growth, whilst still being able to focus your activity on the targets you have set for yourself and others.

So, what we need is a fusion between position based and place based authority, which is very different from believing the world is now unleashing an unbound process of wiki leadership as advocated by MacroWikinomics.  More about that later.

The Internet Redefines Power in the Workplace

Boston, Massachusetts, February 04, 2009 Business News: The Internet Redefines Power in the Workplace, says author of Leadership From Below in a press release today.

Globetrotter Trond Arne Undheim, Ph.D., has discovered that in the Internet age, you do not have to be a leader to lead. His recession-proof message is that effective leadership is about attitude, not position.

While researching his book Leadership from Below in places such as Silicon Valley, Scandinavia and Asia, he found that the Internet generation completely redefines leadership in the global workplace. Much of the management literature misses this point by still addressing CEOs instead of knowledge workers, he argues. Undheim, recently featured in a TV interview on Good Morning Connecticut, goes on a virtual book tour across the globe in March 2009.

Good Morning Connecticut TV Interview

TV interview with Trond Arne Undheim on WTNH (Channel 8, New Haven, CT, USA) on Leadership From Below. The hardback is available on and the paperback is available on

%d bloggers like this: