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What is Servant Leadership?

Many voices are calling for a greater distribution of leadership throughout organizations. With Creating Leaderful Organizations, Joseph Raelin coins a new word to describe organizations that foster leadership throughout their ranks.

The rationale is that the world is now too complex and fast-changing for those at the top to provide all of an organization’s leadership. Additionally, knowledge workers require significant empowerment to feel motivated and engaged. Businesses that compete through innovation critically need everyone thinking hard about where next the business might find new sources of competitive advantage, however short lived.

Distributed leadership is often portrayed as an extended form of empowerment. Beyond letting front line employees make decisions about their own work, they can also help to guide, direct, organize and coordinate the efforts of their colleagues. The idea of self-organizing teams is not new but, as Raelin puts it, such teams are not leaderless, they are leaderful because every member shares the leadership load. The claim is that we need to explicitly recognize this fact and be more proactive about cultivating distributed leadership. It is arguable, however, that this is really distributed management, not leadership. A better candidate for the latter role might be thought leadership.

Thought leadership is the championing of new ideas by any employee and it can be directed down, up or sideways. It is not simply innovation. Thought leaders who are not personally creative can champion good ideas wherever they find them. It is like being a product champion but much broader because thought leaders can advocate changes in any working practice, product, service or business model, but they do not need to be product managers. Whenever you convince your peers or your boss to think differently on any topic, you show thought leadership. It’s about challenging the status quo to create the future, ranging from minor process improvements to major business concept changes.

The Business Case for Promoting Thought Leadership

Not many businesses can survive today without innovation. And this does not just mean new products or services. A constant stream of new ideas is needed on all aspects of how business is done, what processes to change, what markets to pursue and what new customers to cultivate. Hence thought leadership is not just a matter for the R&D department. Motivating knowledge workers to show thought leadership can not only encourage them to devise and champion more new ideas, it can also increase the level of engagement you need to retain them. There is also the benefit of sharing out the load currently resting on executive shoulders, allowing them to add more value in other ways.

Key Features of Thought Leadership

  • It's not a role, position or responsibility, but rather an occasional initiative.
  • It’s not about managing people. It’s just the championing of a new idea.
  • It's multi-directional unlike traditional leadership which is directed downwards.
  • It ends when others buy the idea. It does not manage the implementation of that idea. This is especially true when thought leadership is directed upward where the knowledge worker does not have the power to implement the idea. This is a key point because it suggests that leadership sells the tickets for a journey and management drives the bus to the destination.
  • Inspirational influencing skills are not mandatory. Thought leadership can be shown through logic, factual presentation or a demonstration.
  • Being inspirational helps to climb the hierarchy or induce major culture change, but thought leadership is often small scale and unheroic, emerging on many fronts at once as in guerrilla warfare.
  • It depends on technical, not personal credibility, which is why we can buy the ideas of eccentrics who we wouldn’t trust to run a meeting let alone a team.
  • Unlike positional power, thought leadership cannot be monopolized. It is egalitarian and ephemeral because no one has a monopoly on good ideas.
  • While thought leadership can come from the top, much of it will be bottom up where most new ideas originate, close to the customer.
  • It can be shown unintentionally by example, such as when a newly hired customer service employee automatically uses leading edge skills learned elsewhere and unwittingly shows the way for colleagues.
  • Thought leadership could be seen as suggestion box material for the "real leaders" to decide upon. But this ignores the reality that leadership is shifting from the power of personality or position to the power of knowledge creation.

We are inexorably moving away from leadership as personal presence or form to leadership as substance, new ideas or content. Identifying leadership with inspirational personality (form) lines up with our inclination to worship heroes almost regardless of what they have to say, such as when we expect all manner of wisdom from the mouths of movie or rock stars. In a knowledge driven world, substance wins out over form, hence leadership is independent of influencing style which can range from vision through factual argument to example.

Fostering Thought Leadership

  • Start by revamping your definition of leadership.
  • Stop seeing leadership as positions to be promoted into. Very often, you may be promoting people who are already leaders into managerial positions.
  • To create fully ‘leaderful’ organizations, foster both thought leadership and more extensive empowerment (informal management or self-organizing teams).
  • Upgrade the place of management from a narrow controlling function to a more enabling, facilitative role, one that, like investment, does whatever is necessary to get the best return from all organizational resources.
  • Clarify what roles executives can play to add value when not showing leadership making it clear that coaching and other facilitative activity is managerial, as it is in sports coaching. Showing leadership is advocating new substantial content. It is not a process of enabling others to do anything. This is simply good management.
  • Help employees develop the confidence to show more thought leadership.
  • Train employees on upward influencing skills.
  • Coach executives to foster upward influence and be more receptive to it.
  • Link thought leadership to career management policies to encourage employees to be more proactive in managing their own careers.
  • Celebrate and reward successful instances of thought leadership.
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