Illustration by Yuxin Qin
Recent events have been disruptive on a global scale. The pandemic has caused a re-thinking of how we live and work, while social justice movements have highlighted demands for liberation from models and methods that have upheld the status quo. Concurrently, continued advances in technology and its ubiquitous influence on communications has allowed for workforce dispersion, autonomy and increased efficiency in addressing and responding to tasks. The combined disruptions of these phenomena are affecting business structures, organizational cultures, and processes. Hierarchies are becoming flatter, work more collaborative and co-location less relevant. These realities require leadership capable of allying highly autonomous and dispersed workforces into a united effort. Leadership styles conducive to authentic engagement, providing clear guidance and building integrated processes and structures that foster collaboration and team cohesion is essential.
Leadership requires cultivating healthy inter-personal relationships based on mutual trust. The degree to which a leader is trusted is based on their ability to authentically connect with others. Leaders need to demonstrate that they value their employees, beneficiaries and other stakeholders through authentic engagement. Decisions must be based on mission requirements and mitigate wasted effort through judicious use of time, resources and personnel. Facades of professionalism and efforts at contrived camaraderie in the name of culture building will be viewed as disingenuous.
Leaders must be truthful regarding their intentions and decision-making rationale. This requires a willingness to be open and embrace personal vulnerability. Leaders who embrace openness and vulnerability impact the way that leadership is viewed by organization members. By fully embracing vulnerability, leaders demonstrate the courage to be imperfect and exhibit determination to connect out of authenticity. They let go of who they think they should be, to be who they truly are. A lack of vulnerability and openness can thwart collaboration and lead to workplace silos. Leaders who do not follow this structure may lack the capacity for the authentic relationships required to build trust.
The leader’s intent is a statement that includes the purpose for which task is being pursued and the task’s desired end state. Group members initiate action and push feedback to leaders who can fix problems when they arise, thereby improving the effectiveness and tempo of operations. Intent-based leadership fosters initiative and creates partnership between leader and staff. It does not abrogate the leader’s authority or release them from responsibility, but rather emphasizes the capabilities of the group and fosters their initiative. An intent-based leader’s influence is not bound by geographic location nor limited to a certain number of people. As decision-making becomes decentralized and staff more dispersed, intent-based leadership becomes more critical.
Integrated processes and structures
To build cohesion and foster collaboration, leaders must develop co-creative systems that encourage innovation, taking reasonable risk and giving and receiving feedback. Co-creative systems rely upon shared input for decision-making. While leaders remain ultimately responsible for what the organization does or fails to do, organizational structures become less hierarchical and instead, facilitate collaboration between individuals throughout the organization, regardless of position. A standardized integrated planning process provides a common template from which shared input may develop strategies and hone critical thinking skills. The process also helps build an organization that can adapt to changes in leadership. The process becomes the catalytic mechanism that stimulates progress, rather than one’s force of personality driving progress. A collaborative process also helps to build trust.
The realities of a complex and fluid business environment in which highly autonomous and dispersed organizational members are relied upon to make critical decisions requires leadership that can harness talent and focus on a unified effort toward mission goals. Leaders should prioritize inter-personal relationships, establish co-creative processes and structures, and foster a culture that advances freedom of action, initiative and decision-making at all levels of the organization.
Nico Marcolongo is a 2021 graduate of the Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management program at Arizona State University. He is the senior manager of the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) Operation Rebound program, which supports injured military veterans and first responders through sports. He served 14 years as a Marine Corps Officer and lives in San Diego, California.