The concept of a leaderless workplace is a subject of ongoing debate and experimentation in modern organisational theory. While traditional hierarchical structures have been prevalent, there is a growing interest in decentralised and self-organising approaches. Key approaches to leaderless workplaces include self-management, holacracy, autonomous teams, networked organisations and the adoption of servant-leadership principles. These aim to distribute authority more evenly and promote collaborative decision-making.
However, are these theories effective enough to run a leaderless workplace? Do we really see workplaces functioning without a leader?
“The trend is undeniably moving in this direction,” observes Shailesh Singh, CHRO, Max Life Insurance. He goes on to explain, “The subtleties at play are quite evident, especially with the inclusion of millennials in the workforce and younger individuals entering it, there’s a noticeable shift. Their primary focus is on gaining more empowerment and asking questions until they are genuinely convinced.” The new generation in the workforce displays a significantly higher level of curiosity, scrutiny and a tendency to question.
“In a particular organisational context, it may be feasible to adopt to such modern theories, but it doesn’t eliminate the need for a leader. There is a need for someone who can act as a shock absorber, someone who can represent the organisation at the boardroom, and someone who can engage with various stakeholders within the teams or the company.”
Jacob Jacob, G-CHRO, Malabar Group
Furthermore, in the post-COVID era, organisations have increasingly embraced hybrid work models and the acceptance of remote work. These changes are shaping an environment where people are more engaged in shorter-term projects, focusing on immediate and smaller group goals, as opposed to the broader, company-wide agendas or missions that were prevalent in the past.
Rajeev Singh, senior HR leader, believes, “It largely depends on the context in which a company operates. When considering the organisational hierarchy, it’s possible to incorporate a leaderless structure at the lower or mid-level tiers of the hierarchy, which was a common practice in the past.”
Earlier, the concept of self-managed teams did exist, particularly in the manufacturing shop floor context. These ideas were often an experiment to enhance efficiency and promote greater interdependence among team members when it came to collective work deliveries. However, these teams still remained a part of a larger factory or organisational setup.
In rapidly-changing industries and environments, leaderless structures can be more adaptable and responsive. Additionally, leaderless workplaces, common in startups and modern organisations, promote innovation and diverse thinking by avoiding strict hierarchies and command-and-control structures.
“While there’s a growing interest in more modern, leaderless workplace models, it’s important to note that the traditional hierarchical model is unlikely to be entirely phased out in the near future. Customers and businesses still value accountability, and there’s a need for someone in an overall authoritative role, whether for a project, enterprise, or significant decisions.”
Shailesh Singh, CHRO, Max Life Insurance
“This environment encourages individuals to express themselves creatively without limitations. Employees are driven to excel as they genuinely enjoy their work, leading to increased creativity and productivity, blurring the boundary between work and play,” says Singh. However, is it really going to decimate the traditional hierarchical structures?
“In a particular organisational context, it may be feasible to adopt to such modern theories, but it doesn’t eliminate the need for a leader. There is a need for someone who can act as a shock absorber, someone who can represent the organisation at the boardroom, and someone who can engage with various stakeholders within the teams or the company,” believes Jacob Jacob, G-CHRO, Malabar Group. It’s akin to asking whether a person can run a hospital solely with robots today. However, the answer is ‘no’; as one still needs a doctor, a human presence.
In organisations, dealing with human emotions and complexities requires leadership to distribute responsibilities, foster diversity of opinions, and effectively manage differing perspectives. Effective leadership is crucial for nurturing a healthy organisational culture.
Singh enunciates, “While there’s a growing interest in more modern, leaderless workplace models, it’s important to note that the traditional hierarchical model is unlikely to be entirely phased out in the near future. Customers and businesses still value accountability, and there’s a need for someone in an overall authoritative role, whether for a project, enterprise, or significant decisions.”
“As long as there’s a defined purpose, there will always be someone that people look up to as a leader because not everyone possesses natural leadership qualities.”
Rajeev Singh, senior HR leader
Furthermore, the potential downside of this evolving workplace model is that it may negatively impact efforts to cultivate and deploy organisational culture. “Culture is seen as a powerful tool for reducing friction and unnecessary costs within organisations, serving as a lubricant. Smaller, more decentralised groups may lack a common binding thread, leading to friction and individuals pulling in different directions,” explains Singh. For instance, talent mobility between different regions within an organisation may suffer as common threads (leaders) that once united them become diluted.
“At any company level, the legacy framework demands that there be someone accountable for reporting to shareholders and other stakeholders, addressing matters such as sustainability and governance. That is why, we have CEOs and boards of directors in place,” asserts Singh. It’s possible that at different levels in a company, there may exist roles that do not necessarily require a leader. However, it all depends on the specific job and its nature. For instance, some roles may involve direct client servicing, where clients have certain expectations, while others may operate more independently.
“Instead of debating the need for a leader, the focus should be on selecting the right leaders and understanding their responsibilities. Culture can truly flourish when there is effective leadership in place,” enunciates Jacob. The social fabric of the organisation inherently inclines people to look up to these (leaders) figures for guidance. Not everything can be automated or programmed to the point where it brings about substantial change from that perspective.
Furthermore, Singh also opines that as long as there’s a structure and expectations from an organisation or company, there can’t be a scenario, where there wouldn’t be a need for a leader. “As long as there’s a defined purpose, there will always be someone that people look up to as a leader because not everyone possesses natural leadership qualities,” he adds. An organisation dedicated to its mission and vision necessitates someone responsible for managing all stakeholders. The leader plays a vital role in influencing the workplace’s culture and direction. Although self-managed teams can fulfil their commitments, the idea of a workplace without a leader is beyond imagination.
According to Jacob, “There are inherent advantages, particularly in terms of responsible autonomy. Aside from that, leadership remains a crucial element. Leadership, much like organisational culture, forms the inherent framework that allows organisations to advance to the next level.”
He concludes, “Only with strong, effective leadership and a distinct leadership brand can a company make progress. Otherwise, it may merely exist and assert that it operates as a leaderless organisation, where everyone is considered equal.”