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Book review of When Everyone Leads - a new approach to leadership

Ed O’Malley and Julia Fabrice McBride

“Leadership isn’t... authority, being the boss, vision, charisma, a servant’s heart, an inspirational speech...”

Leadership is action, an activity, not a position.

“Leadership isn’t... authority, being the boss, vision, charisma, a servant’s heart, an inspirational speech...” (O’Malley and McBride, 2023, p.7) Leadership is not those things; it is a multifaceted concept that goes beyond mere authority or being in a position of power.

O’Malley and McBride make the case that the traditional model of leadership, based on hierarchical authority, is proving ineffective in today's rapidly changing world of growing complexity and relentless transformation. “The ‘leadership as a position’ model is collapsing. The world is moving too fast. The pace of change is too unforgiving. Organizations that expect people at the top to do all the leading won’t thrive. At best, they’ll survive.” (O’Malley and McBride, 2023, p.9)

The authors argue that the solution is to move away from a view of leadership as a role and instead see it as an activity. Something that anyone can embrace to move the group forward. “When everyone leads, we make progress on our most important challenges.” (O’Malley and McBride, 2023, p.17) Real leadership is about focusing on the problems and identifying how you want to solve them to bridge the gap. “Those who exercise leadership channel their frustration with the current reality into thoughts about progress. They see where things are today and where they want them to be someday.” (O’Malley and McBride, 2023, p.33)

What is the gap?

Identifying the gap and finding a way forward requires asking tough questions and acknowledging the hard problems and challenges in front of us – from climate change to a difficult relationship. “You can’t change something you won’t acknowledge.” (O’Malley and McBride, 2023, p.22) And then you take the even harder step of expressing your dreams for the future, that “are bold enough to fuel positive change.” (O’Malley and McBride, 2023, p.23) The authors set out three useful questions to identify the gap and find the way forward.

  1. When you think about the future (company, organization, team, community, family), what concerns you the most?

  2. When you think about the future (same group), what is your greatest aspiration?

  3. What makes it hard to close the gap between those concerns and aspirations?

The ‘tough questions’ are the adaptive challenges facing our society, communities, organizations, and relationships. We can only deal with this challenge when we’re looking at them. Leadership helps people look at the gap and aspire to the new reality. “Real progress on the toughest challenges facing your company or community requires more people looking at the gap, voicing concerns and aspirations, balancing pragmatism and idealism.” (O’Malley and McBride, 2023, p.42)

Effective leadership is engaging people who think differently than we do.

Engaging with individuals who think differently, acknowledging barriers to progress, and remaining open to learning and experimentation are crucial elements in addressing adaptive challenges effectively. “When the challenge is adaptive, we have to engage with people who think differently than we do. We have to manage our own insecurities to do what is needed rather than what is comfortable. We have to acknowledge the barriers to progress but never let them get us down. We have to think strategically, stay curious, be open to learning, and be ready to experiment our way across the gap.” (O’Malley and McBride, 2023, p.58)

“If the problem is technical, we solve it by using our own authority or leveraging someone else’s.” (O’Malley and McBride, 2023, p.93) This doesn’t work with an adaptive problem, I know just how tough this is from my experience. In dealing with an adaptive challenge, I confronted the challenge of trying to work with people who saw things differently than I did, and in the end, I rested on my position of authority rather than real leadership to move forward – the result was that when I left things fell back, and in the process, I burnt myself and others out.

People avoid frank discussions about conflicting values, preferring to maintain harmony or focus on urgent matters. However, true progress requires addressing these clashes and collectively balancing the importance of different values. At the end of the day, people hate change because they fear loss, and dealing with it takes time. (O’Malley and McBride, 2023, p.72) “Our most important challenges persist because most of us are really good at avoiding the sustained collective work required to make progress on entrenched, adaptive challenges.”(O’Malley and McBride, 2023, p.173)

When progress stalls, examine your values.

Overcoming adaptive challenges and driving real progress cannot be achieved through quick fixes. It takes time, patience, and a willingness to experiment. “When progress stalls, examine values.” (O’Malley and McBride, 2023, p.79) At the end of the day, words on a wall are just words; in a change process, there will be a clash of values, which means finding a way to balance where you focus your energy. “When the challenge is adaptive, a group has to renegotiate the relationship between two values. But people don’t like to talk frankly about which values get attention and which get lip service.” (O’Malley and McBride, 2023, p.78)

In these situations, real leadership means asking yourself and others, “Does what we’re doing match all the talk about what we care about most?” and “We say we value solving the problem, but what action or investments would back up that talk?” (O’Malley and McBride, 2023, p.83,85) Asking these questions will be difficult, but if you want to create adaptive change, you must risk asking them and facing backlash.

“Leadership is an activity focused on getting people to let go of habits and norms that don’t serve them or those around them…What stops us; we aren’t clear enough with our purpose; we overinflate the risks; we’ve taken risks before, and it didn’t go well.” (O’Malley and McBride, 2023, p.109) Or, more simply, no risk = no leadership.

Adopt a challenge-centric model of leadership.

“Quick fixes don’t work.” (O’Malley and McBride, 2023, p.87). It takes a long time for a challenging problem to develop. Quick fixes don’t solve adaptive challenges. They might solve a technical one. Remember, there is much history behind the problem and why it exists. To move away from quick fixes, think about running more experiments, setting more realistic timetables, and stop overpromising and start over-delivering. (O’Malley and McBride, 2023, p.93) The key is to put the gap at the center of what you are trying to change, focus on what is hard, and start from there. “Challenge-centric leadership = encourages us not to confirm, but inspires us to head in the same direction, differently.” (O’Malley and McBride, 2023, p.135)

There is no right answer to an adaptive challenge and most of the challenges we face today. “Adaptive work requires multiple, successive experiments. A single experiment is rarely, if ever, sufficient to solve (or make lasting progress on) an adaptive challenge. That’s why we talk about acting experimentally and cultivating an experimental mindset.” (O’Malley and McBride, 2023, p.229) We engage in work avoidance because – we recognize there will be loss, we hate discomfort, it's easy to convince ourselves we’ve done enough, we are not sure the problem can ever be solved, and we want to keep people happy. (O’Malley and McBride, 2023, p.176)

So what can I do to take on the leadership challenge?

What makes this book so great is that there is a lot you can do, and it focuses on this. You need to decide to be part of the solution to authorize yourself to lead. To “exercise leadership means deciding to do something above and beyond what’s expected.” (O’Malley and McBride, 2023, p.117) O’Malley and McBride suggest a circle of authorization with you in the middle. Ask yourself what’s expected of you in that circle. These might be formal expectations, like from a job description, or informal expectations, based on norms for people in your positions. These are the things you are authorized to do. Now, step out of the circle. This is leadership, and only you can do this. “It starts with deciding that not only can you lead, but to make progress, you must lead. You have to do your part.” (O’Malley and McBride, 2023, p.120)


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