Peer-to-Peer Leadership: Why the Network Is the Leader

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From a top scholar and corporate executive comes a new vision for leadership; the days of top-down management are numbered, but the potential for peer-to-peer leadership is limitless.

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Chapter 1: The Language of Leadership

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The current definitions and historical models of leadership are rooted in the relationship between two entities—leader and follower. Terms such as “leader-member,” “in-group and out-group,” “power over,” talent and workforce, and “power through” highlight the traditional models, while terms such as “empowerment,” “subordinates,” and “followers” conjure up images of servitude and second-class citizenship. All of them differentiate each entity in terms of status and imply a certain level of inequality. There is no job description for or position called “Follower Specialist.” The role of follower is more often than not viewed in negative terms while the role of leader represents a virtuous mantle of aspiration. Leadership was, and largely still is, reserved for a very few while the very many follow. The language of leadership reflects and supports this division between leader and follower, and neither the definition nor the language of leadership is sufficient for the world today.

After the Great Depression of the 1930s in the United States and the post-World War II era when people returned to work, loyal followership often guaranteed lifelong employment and ensured that one could care for and feed one’s family (and, upon retirement, get a watch as a token of appreciation). Employers could almost guarantee that subordinates would do whatever was necessary to earn their pay and small rewards. The negative connotation of the word “follower” was far less painful to swallow than the inability to care for oneself or one’s family. Even as the informal and unwritten employment contracts began to erode and change in the latter part of the twentieth century, only to be rendered completely obsolete in the twenty-first century, there were many instances where employees felt compelled to follow blindly—even in situations of blatant abuse and illegal behavior. The economic conditions of the time helped support the divide and distinctions between leaders and followers. The landscape has changed quite a bit since the 1930s, but the language we use remains a remnant of a bygone past. Our responses to and the visceral images created by that language linger. Instead of reinforcing age-old divisions, we need a mindset and language of leadership that maintains equilibrium between leading and following—a conception of leadership that is agile and stateless in its composition. Like the U.S. constitution guides and influences the nation’s trajectory without stifling the rights and freedoms of its populace, organizations’ designs need to facilitate leading and following on an equal platform. Neither leaders nor followers can achieve success without the other, and both can render an organization non-competitive or cause it to underachieve its mission.

 

Chapter 2: Node Community

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Big-screen televisions lined the bar at the Lucky Strike Bowling Alley overlooking the Hudson River in New York City. Comfortable chairs, couches, and cocktail tables invited non-bowling enthusiasts to enjoy their tête-à-tête without missing anything on the big screen. My family and several friends ordered our first round of drinks in anticipation of the first 2012 presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts. As we settled in, commentator Jim Lehrer began his introduction to the media-hyped debate.

The debate started slowly, continuing at an uneventful pace and maintaining a blasé tone until Mr. Romney repeated a comment he had previously made about wanting to cut funding to the U.S. Public Broadcasting System (PBS). But this time, he added a new twist; if elected president, he would eliminate funding to the PBS and fire Big Bird!

Fire Big Bird? The kind, likeable, compassionate, and bigger-than-life yellow bird with the orange beak? The bird that has been an iconic American symbol for at least three generations—both in the United States and throughout the world?4

 

Chapter 3: Organizational Equipotency

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On December 3, 1979, the rock band The Who was scheduled to play a concert at 8 p.m. at Cincinnati Coliseum in Cincinnati, Ohio. By 6 p.m., masses of people had gathered outside the doors and were anxiously waiting to enter. When coliseum officials opened just a limited number of the many stadium entrances at 7:30 p.m., thousands of excited fans rushed in through the few doors simultaneously.

Some blocks away at the Cincinnati General Hospital emergency room, I was working the night shift in the psychiatric emergency room and was the shift lead. What began as a relatively calm night changed abruptly when groups of panicked, screaming people showed up at the ER—frantically begging for information about friends, children, and loved ones—asking things like “Are they alive?” and “Where can I find them?” For a few minutes, the emergency room staff had no idea that a riot had occurred not far from the hospital itself, but it was not long before someone volunteered information that drug users had stampeded the stadium and trampled eleven to death. The trampling accounts were quickly debunked as rumors.

 

Chapter 4: Relational Dynamics

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During the last full week of October 2012, Hurricane Sandy ravaged communities from Jamaica to the northeastern United States—leaving hundreds dead, thousands without food, housing, or power, and billions of dollars in damage done along its path. In New York and New Jersey, flooding and tidal surges devastated coastal and low-lying communities, leaving many residents in need of basic services—something to eat, something dry to wear, someplace warm to go. In the days immediately following the storm, one question almost hung in the air above buildings and neighborhoods seemingly forgotten or neglected by the aid organizations supposedly standing at the ready: Where is the American Red Cross?

It took days before many official responders were up, running, and serving storm victims in the hardest-hit communities, leaving many residents with little option other than to wait. But not everyone was waiting. Anticipating and seeing something of an aid vacuum in the face of urgent and overwhelming need, half a dozen veterans of the Occupy Wall Street movement (yes, the same OWS accused of bringing more heat than light to general debates about the future of the country) headed to public housing projects with flashlights and trays of hot lasagna and handed them out to those in need. Just like that, “Occupy Sandy” was born.

 

Chapter 5: From Survival of the Fittest to Survival of the Connected

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If the story of Dave Carroll and “United Breaks Guitars” showed us anything, it’s that P2P networks have made the world vastly more connected than it has ever been. The communicative distance between individuals continues to shrink, and what once seemed a vast and varied global landscape has begun to feel a bit smaller—a bit more like the community market. As many organizations struggle to realize the power inherent in this network, AirBnB harnesses global P2P connections and the accompanying sense of community for the benefit of all “nodes” involved.

As something of an alternative to hotel accommodations, AirBnB allows anyone to list any type of residence for free. Travelers looking for a certain type of place to stay—be it an entire home, a room in an apartment, or a yurt behind someone’s log cabin in the woods—can connect with those listing spaces in this P2P marketplace. Potential renters can see pictures and read reviews written by past renters before making a selection, and those renting out places write reviews about the tenants who have stayed there. Taking it a step further, AirBnB allows members to connect a Facebook account so they can see homes being rented or reviews of places written by people in their personal network. It lets them extract travel advice from their personal network. Apart from facilitating payment and offering a space to host listings and reviews, AirBnB largely stays out of the way of a natural P2P process and allows those with extra space to rent to those needing it while fostering a trusted and transparent community through conversation and direct relationships between equipotent nodes.

 

Chapter 6: The Flow of Information

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The World Bank headquartered in Washington, DC is one of the world’s largest funding and knowledge sources for governments and for countries that are members of the World Bank. It is also one of the most informationrich organizations in the world. Before its inception in 1944, development data had been primarily accessible only to paid subscribers and those directly connected with development projects around the world. That changed when the World Bank opened up its data for public consumption. The April 2010 announcement was welcomed around the world, especially in developing countries. Why was that?

The introduction of the Open Data Catalog portal, www.data.worldbank.org, now gives policymakers and other organizations access to more than two thousand financial, business, health, economic, and human development statistics. Data is now available in a readable, user-friendly format. It includes international statistics, with data on topics from agriculture and rural development to social and urban development.

 

Chapter 7: Nimbleness and Change

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In P2P architecture, replacing an environment that must be reshuffled to create a climate for change with an environment of adaptability and change produces organizational nimbleness. There is no longer a requirement for time and space between plan, do, check, and act. Unlike the linear processes we now have for problem solving, continuous improvement, change, planning, doing, checking, and acting are human functions that can be intermingled, reorganized, or regenerated. The linear progression of action in the change process of a traditional organization is, in a P2P networked organization, a spherical web of constant action and interaction. The change processes and equations for change must include the intertwined nature of human interaction and technology-enabling tools. Just as early tools extended the capacity of humans in early evolution, modern technological tools are extending the human capacity to make decisions, problem solve, and apply judgment and critical thinking.

If the node is the physical entity connecting and binding a community, then the node community is the primary entity within which nodes connect and anticipate change. The node community becomes more than a social network: it is a workflow network—the architectural and structural design of how work gets done and how change can occur. Thus, the strength of the organization shifts from the individual set of decisions to the degree to which information can be organized and used as a tool to bring others together to make informed decisions. The organization of information among many is the broadest concept for decision making and change. This concept is reflected in the seminal work of Marvin Weisbord (Weisbord Janoff) and others, who have demonstrated the value and critical nature of having everyone in the room.

 

Chapter 8: Real-Time Feedback and Dialogue

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Sally appeared at the door of my office and wiped tears from her eyes with a tissue. “Come in and have a seat,” I said. She sat down and tears began to flow more heavily. I handed her a box of tissues and remained silent. After a couple of minutes, she looked up and said, “Thanks for letting me come in without an appointment. I just finished my performance review with Sarah Jane, and I’m so upset.” She began to recount her experience of the meeting. “Sarah Jane told me that others had reported to her that my performance was poor and my attitude was not good. I’m blown away! I had no idea what she was talking about. Last year, Jim was my supervisor, and my performance review was excellent. None of my ratings were below a 3 (out of 5 scale), and the comments about my behavior were very good as well. Sarah Jane came in a few months ago and immediately began assigning work to John and Marsha. The three of them had worked together before in another area. I didn’t have any meetings with Sarah Jane until we had a customer issue, and she asked me to do the investigation and prepare a report. There were a number of corrective actions that needed to be taken, so I included them in the report and sent the report to Sarah Jane and the heads of the two departments that were also involved. I’ve had no other interaction with Sarah Jane until today.” Unfortunately, Sally’s situation is not atypical and might even have occurred in your organization today.

 

Chapter 9: Implications for Organization Design

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I once worked in a large hospital system in the southeastern part of the United States when it was forced to respond to the threat of managed healthcare—a phenomenon that swept healthcare in the United States during the 1990s. The hospital system’s response was to merge with a rival hospital in another part of the city. The merger, billed as “a merger of equals,” was an extremely difficult undertaking, and the two institutions eventually de-merged. One remarkable lesson I learned from the experience can be found in the “story of the turkeys.”

In the midst of the largest of cost-cutting initiatives, a decision was made to eliminate the traditional distribution of holiday turkeys to every employee. Because the merger would double the size of the newly formed health system, the cost of the turkeys would double, and because the other hospital had no comparable practice, it was deemed an unnecessary expense that could be eliminated. A few dissenting voices from the senior leadership team protested; however, finances were the most important criterion used to determine what stayed and what was eliminated.

 

Chapter 10: Implications for Leadership

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Tom Watson Sr., the founder of IBM, once said in an interview many years ago that he wanted IBM to be like an “industrial family”—a family where your duty is to those you serve and to those who work in the organization.29 For years he focused on IBM customers and on fair compensation for employees, and that became one of the things IBM was known for as it grew to become one of the most successful and influential companies in the world. Tom Watson Sr. also introduced the THINK concept—an idea where he made sure every employee was encouraged to bring ideas forward every day. THINK signs were posted everywhere so employees would see them no matter what direction they turned. THINK became known as a symbol of IBM.

Tom Watson Jr. expanded on his father’s legacy and added a focus on social issues that affect organizations. In addition to all employees being encouraged to bring their ideas forward, he introduced other changes that related directly to respect for the individual. He eliminated the hourly wage that distinguished one class of employee from another; he introduced tuition loans for employees; and he introduced the annual company survey where employees gave feedback on the managers, the company, and the workplace as a whole. All employees rated their manager, all other managers, the division, the region, all the way to the chairman’s office. They rated the facilities and the workplace and could also write in comments. The annual survey was taken very seriously, and employees could see actions being made at all levels of the organization as a result of their feedback. To the chagrin of many employees, the original employee survey and the practice of listening to the voices of all employees were discontinued. As the company grew and changed over the years, the survey morphed into a representative sample of employees providing limited feedback. One can only wonder and speculate on the unintended consequences and actual cost to the organization of diluting employees’ voices, especially for those who lived in THINK culture. IBM and a few other U.S. companies were unique in their leadership approach, and they were revolutionary in their time.

 

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