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Transcript: Forget the hero leader, you need a company of leaders

Companies must show a willingness to allow people who don’t have a job title of manager or executive or whatever to take on leadership roles, management professor Ed Lawler says.

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KARL MOORE – This is Karl Moore of the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University with Talking Management for The Globe and Mail. Today, I am delighted to speak to Ed Lawler, who is a senior professor at the Marshall School [of Business] at the University of Southern California.

Good morning, Ed.

ED LAWLER – Good morning, Karl.

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KARL MOORE – Ed, you have studied leadership for a long time and are one of the top people in the world – what is new about leadership this year?

ED LAWLER – Chris Worley and I emphasize this very strongly in our recent book called Management Reset, that we are looking more at what you call distributive leadership or shared leadership but how you develop a company of leaders more than a hero leader. We have certainly gone through and continue to have a bit of a worship relationship with people who are super successful, lead large companies, and so forth and so on. They obviously add a lot of value but they don't really lead throughout the organization on a day-to-day basis.

What we see, at least, is more and more companies recognizing that and saying, 'Hey, we have to look at our organization from a developing leadership point of view,' which argues that leaders are throughout the company. They may not be leaders today but when the situation comes up that requires leadership, we need people who are capable of stepping up and saying, 'Okay, I will take that one on,' or 'I will head that group,' or 'I'll take that initiative,'" and so forth and so on.

That kind of broadly based leadership capability, which we called shared leadership, is probably the newest thing and that requires selecting people throughout the organization for their potential to be leaders, seeing leadership training as something that permeates the organization and, of course, a willingness on the part of the organization to allow people who don't have a job title of manager or executive or whatever to take on leadership roles – whether it be in task forces or teams or just on a customer issue that comes up, to encourage people and reward them for taking the leadership role and solving a problem or creating a new program.

KARL MOORE – This kind of new approach requires senior leaders to be a bit more humble and spend more time listening than talking. Are people starting to do that, do you think?

ED LAWLER – First of all, I don't disagree with you that it does take a different type of senior leader to share leadership, if you will, or distribute leadership. I see more of it but certainly it is not universal. A lot of people get to be CEOs and want to be CEOs because they want to be the ultimate leader and the driver of the organization and that is what their ego is all about. But I do see more of a new generation of leaders who understand that yes, they can set a climate and set a culture, but they need help throughout the organization in order to have a well-led organization.

KARL MOORE –You have been gathering data from around the world. Is this approach to a more distributive leadership more of a North American or European thing, but not as true in India, China, and Russia? Or do you see it as something that is spreading around the whole global economy?

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ED LAWLER – That is a good question. I see it spreading certainly in European countries. I am not so sure about certainly places like Russia or China – one of the pieces on China was when we collected data on it for my HR program and see what their HR functions look like and they are sort of where the rest of the world was 20 or 30 years ago.

When we looked at Europe, U.S., it was very similar. We did ask about management styles in our HR survey in the company and, again, China looked very different from East India in terms of more traditional bureaucratic top-down management approach. That was in their private enterprises and not their government enterprises.

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