Disassembling Leadership

Who’s Responsibility is it?

3 minute read

Another issue buried inside the idea of leadership is the one related to successes and failures. Even when no objective reason exists, we tend to associate successes and failures to the individuals that are most visible in a group.

The lone-genius myth prevents us from grappling with a series of paradoxes about creative pairs: that distance doesn’t impede intimacy, and is often a crucial ingredient of it; that competition and collaboration are often entwined. Only when we explore this terrain can we grasp how such pairs as Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, and Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy all managed to do such creative work.
— Joshua Wolf Shenk (2014) The Power of Two

This idea is incredibly radicated. We don’t know why, if it’s just for the sake of simplicity of being able to name one person instead of many, or because we project our hopes to be that successful individual, or a biological need for leads to follow.

The lone-genius myth is triggered instantly when you have a person that is a “leader”, to different degrees. Even just a job title. This makes the bias very subtle and very dangerous. People can instantly change attitude the moment they become aware of your “rank”.

This translates instantly to pragmatic aspects of leadership: responsibility.

The manager or the lead becomes in most of the companies the person responsible for the objective that the team is pursuing. This has two effects:

  1. Shifts the responsibility away from the individuals to the manager.
  2. Gives the manager a lever to push everything they want done, even if the team is against thea idea.

And this of course justifies at the eyes of many a higher salary.

It’s important to notice that for sure, the manager has responsibilities, but these responsibilities are the same as any other member of the team, and they are related to the skills a manager should have and no more.

For an individual to be fully responsible for other people work it would mean that we believe that the individual alone is able to change course of a team entirely. This is again expression of the lone-genius myth, but also a technical impossibility.

There are teams and leadership styles that match, and others that don’t. No individual is able to transform a team performing bad in a team that performs well — unless one scenario: that the previous lead was really bad and was fighting against the team, and the new lead instead has a perfect leadership style match with the team.

In short, we are talking about being powerless in terms of outcome, being responsible if anything goes bad, and being paid a premium for that risk.

The above is the definition of an insurance, not of a job.

What to change

This is a very tricky bit to change. Evaluating responsibility, for either successes or failures, is really hard.

The only truthful answer in both scenarios is: everyone involved in it is responsible.

So when you celebrate a success, or review a failure, you need to always keep in mind that you have to fight that bias, and you can fight it by assuming as a starting point that everyone is responsible.

Then sure, you can dive into each specific situation and see what really happened, but that becomes a case-by-case scenario. And still, I’m sure that if you try to review it objectively, the out come will still be: everyone.

This means that if you need to fix a problem, or replicate a successful approach that one team uses to another team, you need to look at every ingredient of that mix, and try to see, as a whole, what’s there and what’s missing. There’s no independent factor at play, but many interplaying ones.

Read the full series