Frameless Leadership

by  William Powell  |  Leadership Development

Even with idea of collaborative leadership in “flat” organizations, many consider “leadership” as a permeating force that ebbs and flows in and over every nook and cranny of an organization.  An example is when the end user is included in the development of the process and their voice actually has measurable value. Leadership taking on such a fluid form is quite effective for creating an amazing organization, but just like any fluid it will begin to take on the shape of its “container” or how it is framed.

An alternative to totally fluid leadership is linear structure. In western culture, default settings generally imply some linear structure be attached to something in order for it to function properly. The argument is made that without having things go through certain processes, usually within a hierarchy of authority, then the desired result won’t happen. It’s as if the process adds a magical element to the result.

Herman Miller has designed a new chair whose back doesn’t have a frame. The material is structured in a way that allows it to support your back, but still conform to your unique shape. The material of the back of the chair has varying densities and firmer support is given in the spinal area and a little more flexible around the shoulders and sides.

What a great example of how to allow our fluid and collaborative approach to leadership to “take shape”, as it were. How different would our leadership look if we chose to get rid of the frame? Imagine an organization where the support was focused on the areas that truly need it for health and was flexible and malleable in its function and form in other areas. Zappos is a great example. The customer service team are told to “think like they’re the general manager”. They don’t have a script to read. They can answer the phone anyway they feel like answering it. If, in their conversation with the customer, they find that there is a tragedy in their life they can even send flowers and a card. That is taking the frame off leadership.

Find creative and innovative ways to take the frame off how we do leadership and allow it to ebb and flow with the unique creativity of those in our organizations. Obviously this isn’t a call to abandon fiscal responsibility, but how ideas develop, how a process is managed (micro-managing), and how we include end users in the process of developing and moving an organization forward can be approached much differently.

Quality leadership can be a catalyst to improve the future, but only by disturbing the present. Can you think of some other ways people can “shake up” the present or take the frame off leadership? Do you have some past examples or past experiences you could share?

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Mike Myatt  |  14 Oct 2010  |  Reply

What an illustrative and insightful post that all leaders can learn from. Well done Bill.

William Powell  |  15 Oct 2010  |  Reply

Thanks Mike! I appreciate your thoughts.

Jennifer V. Miller  |  14 Oct 2010  |  Reply

I helped launch a different Herman Miller product—the popular Aeron chair, so I love the example you use.

Let’s take for a moment your example of a “frameless” chair as a metaphor for leadership structure and pair it with what I learned from watching the product development process at Herman Miller. Herman Miller promotes their SAYL chair as having a “frameless back”. If you look at the product photos, indeed, it doesn’t have the typical full-backed frame structure that you see in more traditional office chairs. But it does have a center support section running up the back of the chair. This makes sense to me, because my experience with the product development process (and physics in general) is that you need material that will somehow support the mass of a person who’s sitting in chair. So, while the chair may not have a traditional frame, it does provide a certain amount of structure so that it can support the seated person.

In the same way, I see leadership as needing to have some form of structure or support, otherwise it’s not leadership, it’s anarchy. My take on this metaphor is that as leaders, we don’t completely remove the frame, but rather ensure that the frame is properly supporting the contributor base.

We also should ensure that the “frame” (or I would call it boundaries) aren’t so constricting that they limit possibility. On that point, I think you and I agree.

William Powell  |  15 Oct 2010  |  Reply

How great that you are familiar with the development of the example I used!

You are absolutely correct in that the “frame” should properly support the contributor base. I’m not an advocate of anarchy or leaderless leadership (a bit of an oxymoron). I am an advocate of lifting the restrictive barriers to growth, innovation, and creativity that seem to be permanently hinged to the traditional approach to what we have believed leadership to be.

Gurprriet Siingh  |  24 Dec 2010  |  Reply

I loved this note. I am always one for using universal metaphors, example how the universe has a balance between chaos and control, as does the natural environment. Humans as a species, in their attempt to find greater comfort, have sought greater control. At first over the environment and of late over their lives. We derisk the future. We forecast potential upsides and downsides.

We put systems and processes in place, and then we second and triple guess what could go wrong, and build redundancies to prevent them.

And in doing all this, we lose malleability, we lose the balance between the soft and the hard, the yin and the yang. Between being nurturing and firm, to controlling and severe.

The developed world is an example of this kind of thinking, the undeveloped nations on the other hand, continue to retain a bit of their chaos and mayhem. As a result, their ability to bounce back from unforeseen crises is far superior. Their ability to compete, flex, rapidly change direction is far superior today, to that of the developed world.

While the developed world is looking through the manual to find the right response, the undeveloped world (which has no manuals) is responding.

Thanks for putting this up. It made me think!

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