Who leads?

What we wanted to communicate with this swirling cluster of moving stars is the notion of fluid hierarchies, a key feature of many socialstructs that rely on the participation of large networks of people. It is not that such socialstructs don’t have hierarchies; it is just that such hierarchies are not based on assigned roles or titles. They are not results of dictates from above. Rather such hierarchies and organizational structures are fluid, emergent, and constantly evolving.
— Marina Gorbis, The Nature of the Future

The success of the elastic enterprise depends on virtually everyone exercising some type of leadership role, somewhere, in some way, through influence.
— Nicholas Vitalari and Haydn Shaughnessy, The Elastic Enterprise

We need all of us to take the lead, to act in line with the common purpose of our organisations.
— Christopher Bones, The Cult of the Leader

Leadership is the choice to serve others with or without any formal rank.
— Simon Sinek, Leaders Eat Last

Social movements and civil unrest. Popular challenges to long-established institutions. Border-crossing networks of informed crowds seeking to exercise their rights. Whether focused on fiscal policy, corporate corruption, inequality or the overthrow of dictatorships, these have formed the backdrop of world affairs over the past decade. They have been the subject of endless hours of media footage, reams of print, digital comment and observation. The emergence of what Manuel Castells has termed Networks of Outrage and Hope has raised a challenging question that continues to perplex traditional media outlets and the machinery of the state. Who leads? It was a question that greatly taxed the journalists as they interviewed the tent-dwelling protestors of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Was the answer no-one or everyone or it depends?

Strong, trust-based relationships are the genuine currency of networks. This was as true of the salon-era communities that we associate with the political and artistic movements of yesteryear as it is today. The difference now is that digital and mobile technologies foster and enable the speed and scale at which networks can be established and grow. A physical meeting strengthens a bond established online but it is not essential for the overall health of the network. People on different continents, in different time zones, can still connect on shared interests, fuelled by either hope or outrage, adding their voices and energy to the greater whole. What characterises the network in these situations is a fluidity of knowledge, roles, responsibilities and authority. Leadership is in motion, governed by context.

Networked partnerships, shaped by either collaboration or cooperation, are increasingly evident in business too. As Nicholas Vitalari and Haydn Shaughnessy argue in The Elastic Enterprise, this can happen between organisations, with certain enterprises like Alibaba, Google, Github and Apple creating platforms or ecosystems; spaces for partnerships with an array of other businesses both large and small. It can also happen within a single organisation. In Creativity, Inc., for example, Ed Catmull outlines the leadership responsibilities not only of the figurehead triumvirate of himself, Steve Jobs and John Lasseter at Pixar and Disney, but also of writers, directors and animators too. Leadership here can be a form of service, enabling others, guiding and advising.

It is also necessary to respond to context, recognising when it is your turn to take the initiative, to put your expertise or specialism at the service of others. This is not a case of telling, but of opening up a conversation, making others comfortable contributing too. Former rugby international Phil Greening has enjoyed success recently coaching the US seven-a-side team. In a Guardian interview, he discusses how he and his colleagues had to overhaul a command-and-control culture. Leadership has to come from within the team, from anywhere on the playing field. It is not the case of a coach simply instructing players on what to do. Instead it is about developing a partnership, recognising the skills and mastery, the autonomy, of each individual. As Paul Rees put it in a recent Guardian article, ‘The very best teams harness individualism, not exile it.’

In peloton formations, I use the professional cycling peloton to illustrate the responsiveness and flexibility that is necessary in the modern organisational structure. The metaphor also serves to highlight the absolute fluidity of roles and responsibilities within a cycling team itself and across the peloton as a whole. There is a constant need to adapt to context. Cycling is a sport in which competition, collaboration and cooperation are frequently in tension. Networked relationships across the peloton underpin time-bound partnerships on the road – the flight of the breakaway from the main bunch, for example – which eventually dissolve as the finish line nears. Within each team trust is essential, so too the fulfilment of specific roles on designated days – whether that is leading the pack up a climb, chasing down a breakaway, or taking your place on a fast-moving sprint train.

Cycling is an anomaly. It is a team sport in which, with the exception of the team time trial, a single person crosses the finish line to win and enjoy the plaudits on the podium. But it is a sport that also covers hugely varied terrain – rolling hills, flatlands, mountainous ranges. The composition of a cycling team, therefore, is an exercise in diversity. With diversity as an organising principle, there is a requirement to embrace a range of different but complementary skill sets, determined in part by the team’s overall objectives in the race. Is it chasing stage wins? The general classification? The climber’s prize? The sprinter’s? It is a sport that, because of its very nature, is always raising the question: Who leads?

In 2012, Team Sky entered the squad of nine riders pictured below in the Tour de France. From left to right, they are Christian Knees (GER), Richie Porte (AUS), Chris Froome (GBR), Edvald Boasson Hagen (NOR), Bradley Wiggins (GBR), Mark Cavendish (GBR), Bernhard Eisel (AUT), Michael Rogers (AUS) and Kanstantsin Siutsou (BLR). The overall objective for the squad was to win the general classification, earning a yellow jersey for Wiggins. His role as team leader is suggested overtly by his positioning in the centre of the image.

Team Sky 2012 Tour de France team

However, this is a squad full of leaders. Standing next to Wiggins is Cavendish adorned in the jersey of the reigning World Champion. Boasson Hagen would also wear his national champion’s jersey during the race. Froome would follow in Wiggins’s footsteps as a multiple stage-race winner in 2013. Porte too would go on to develop as a general-classification contender. Something already achieved by his national compatriot Rogers, who is also a three-time world champion against the time-trial clock. Throughout the Tour, as well as in many other races, Eisel would fulfil the role of road captain.

While Siutsou sadly crashed out of the race on the third stage to Boulogne-sur-Mer, this meant even greater responsibilities had to be shouldered by his teammates. Who leads in this next photograph?

Team Sky in action at the 2012 Tour de France

Wiggins wears the race leader’s jersey. Note how he is protected both in front and behind by his teammates. Does he lead here? Or is it Knees who is at the front of the peloton, taking the wind, punching a hole through the air, clearing the way for others to follow? Or Eisel who will have organised his teammates into this simultaneously proactive but protective pace line? Or Cavendish, who is also sheltered, and may be seeking to compete for the stage win later in the day, the last wagon on a runaway sprint train?

The organisation of a sprint train is an art form that illustrates the notion of rotating leadership. It is executed at high speed, in complex conditions, surrounded by other riders, variable weather, huge crowds and road furniture. The members of a team ride in formation, wheel-to-wheel. They are streamlined for air resistance and maximum velocity. One-by-one they assume leadership of the train, until finally the sprinter is alone, launching themselves towards the finish line, uncoupling themselves from the pilot fish instincts of their lead-out man.

The first of these two videos, from the 2015 Tour of Dubai, captures the work of Cavendish’s new team Etixx-QuickStep. The second illustrates the decision-making and lead-out work of Cavendish’s teammates George Hincapie and Mark Renshaw when members of the Team Columbia-HTC squad in 2009.

To answer the question Who leads?, one has to understand the importance of trust, autonomy and context. It is as relevant in the encampments of Occupy as it is on the roads of the Grand Tours, the corridors of government and the open spaces of the modern workplace.

The shift requires leaders to behave differently. There is a strong tendency for enterprises to exaggerate the prestige and esteem associated with leadership. But leaders in modern enterprises are respected as peers. They are the people who can lead change and invention because they are first among equals, not because they command the budgets. They are able to forge a new pathway for their people to walk along.
— Haydn Shaughnessy, Shift

By opening up organizational boundaries to partners, suppliers and customers, collaborative leaders can increase the flow of ideas, and often generate creative ways of reducing cost or improving service that no one would have come up with on their own.
— David Archer and Alex Cameron, Collaborative Leadership

What reasons do followers now have for going along with leaders? There are only two: either we go along because we have to (or think we do), or we go along because we want to.
— Barbara Kellerman, The End of Leadership

It is time to connect the dots between leadership, engagement, learning, technology and collaboration.
— Dan Pontefract, Flat Army