• Kieran Doherty

Organisational Leadership: How it works and what it looks like

Organisational leadership doesn’t focus on the application of any particular model, tool or style. Every model, tool and style will have some form of effectiveness in some type of situation. Organisational leadership focuses on the core purpose of creating the optimum environment that allows and inspires people to perform. It is flexible, it is transparent, it is aware.

Throughout the leadership literature and commentary there are varying perspectives on what organisational leadership is. The following is mine, and is based on my own experiences and learning. It is what I’m passionate about and helping others implement and cultivate organisational leadership is how I want to contribute.

What is Organisational Leadership?

An easy starting point to understand organisational leadership is to unpack it into its fundamental language components; the words ‘organisation’ and ‘leadership’.

When we read or hear the word ‘organisation’, a range of different images and meaning can come to mind. For example: big companies, enterprises, volunteer groups, buildings, equipment, products, sales, success, order. Depending on your experiences and beliefs the images and meaning might be unique to you. However, from the basic perspective of language, an organisation is:

A group of people with a particular or shared purpose.

Similarly, when we read or hear the word leadership, we will associate a range of images and meaning to it. For example, the c-suite, executives, generals, captains, strong, powerful, inspiring, decisions, paths, rescue, survival. From the perspective of language, leadership is:

The action of leading a group of people or an organisation.

Therefore, at the heart of organisational leadership are the actions of leading a group of people towards a shared purpose. Critically, organisational leadership prioritises people. That means, if you are a leader wanting to cultivate and implement organisational leadership it’s not about you. It’s about people.

What is the difference to other leadership styles?

There is a wide range of leadership styles that have been applied, labelled and researched throughout our history. A small number of these include autocratic, charismatic, democratic, empowering, laissez-faire, participative, servant, situational, transactional, transformational and visionary leadership.

All of these have particular time and circumstances where they can be applied effectively and appropriately. In practicing organisational leadership you may use all, some, or none of them. Organisational leadership focuses on continually creating the optimum environments that allow and inspire people to perform through different times and circumstances.

How does it work?

The strategy I use for implementing and cultivating organisational leadership is grounded in fundamental beliefs, truths and values. These include, but is not limited to:

  • Believing the people of the organisation have the potential and resourcefulness to achieve the purpose.

  • Believing the purpose will bring the desired meaning and experiences.

  • Knowing the potential for limiting beliefs and unconscious biases to impact the organisation.

  • Valuing the opportunities for people to learn, fail, and grow.

  • Valuing the diversity individuals bring to the organisation.

  • Valuing critical evaluation from both internal and external sources.

With these beliefs, truths and values creating the foundation, the strategy seeks to incarnate core behaviours and practices across the organisation. These are:

  • The prioritisation of people in the organisation.

  • The continual and accurate communication of purpose, strategy, and action.

  • Leading to ensure the success of people and consequently the organisation.

  • Developing people’s capabilities and cultivating opportunities for growth.

  • Managing activities transparently through inception, execution and evaluation.

  • Giving time and space for creativity and innovation.

  • Sharing power and allowing people to perform.

What does it look like?

Importantly, it doesn’t look like a utopia where everyone waltzes through their days with dreamy smiles on their faces. It looks real. It has intent. It is flexible, transparent and aware. And, it is applied contextually across companies, functions, departments, teams and even pairs (a group of two people working towards an outcome is still an organisation). Here are some examples of what it looks like:

People are understood and known. This means the organisation understands what individual purposes are, what motivates them, what work they love, what they do differently. It knows what their current skills, knowledge, and attitudes are, and where they want to improve.

Communication is effective. It is established and maintained with the intent to ensure that the purpose, strategy and actions for any given activity, project or program are commonly understood by all people. This includes the description and agreement of behavioural expectations for the organisation.

Decisions are based on purpose. This means that decisions can be made or discarded efficiently based on whether it aids or hinders progress towards the organisational purpose. Hence the importance of continual and accurate communication stated above.

Solutions are discovered not told. With the exception of immediate safety concerns, leaders don’t need to give the answers to problems or challenges. Rather they facilitate discovery by team members. This cultivates the opportunities for learning, growth and innovation for individuals and the organisation.

Evaluation is started before action. Evaluating an outcome without knowing where you were to begin with can make any data meaningless. Therefore, measuring and baselining the current reality, environment or circumstance before actions occur gives meaning and direction to the new data following actions.

Who can benefit from organisational leadership?

Groups of people moving towards a shared purpose forms part of our social existence. A small list of different groups could include: sports clubs, maintenance crews, company departments and teams, start-up and established businesses, coaches and their clients, volunteer groups, not-for-profits, government and non-government organisations, multinational corporations, and you and your colleague.

Each of these organisations can benefit from having the optimum environment that allows and inspires them to perform. And no one person needs to be (or can be) solely responsible for creating that environment. But sometimes it does take someone to want to start it. Is that someone you?