A Model for Leaders of Leaders

Atomic Object is an organization full of wicked-smart innovators. It’s a wonderful group of people, and I feel privileged to be a part of it. But in an organization like AO where we are all leaders, authors, and presenters of one sort or another, how does one lead?

When I look at Mike, Shawn, Darrell, Mary, and Carl, I’m so impressed with the way they collectively captain this ship. It’s no easy task. Sometimes, I think it’s akin to trying to herd a group of cats. We are all smart, independent and have our own goals. Our tendency is to scatter. How do these folks manage to keep us together and moving in any direction at all? Here’s what I’ve discovered through my own observations of leadership at Atomic.

A Model That Was Ripe for Change

The history of this industry shows us that traditional leadership models often don’t work. Why? As John Maeda once said so insightfully, “In a world where everyone is an author, authority means less.” Unlike the days of European royalty in the Middle Ages, leadership is no longer just about position. It isn’t about power or authority. In fact, my generation and those who came after us have a historical distrust of authority figures. So what does it take to lead a field full of intelligent, driven leaders?

Today, you have to rely on something entirely different.




A More Effective Way to Lead

Successful leadership isn’t about how you defend your position at the top of a hierarchy. Instead, it’s about how you relate with and influence those around you, and how you maintain relationships and connections with the other nodes in your network. That means a totally new set of skills are necessary. Do you know how to have conversations that will allow a person to think freely and make their own decisions, while being informed by your point of view? Do you know how to encourage and support a colleague who is having a bad day/week/month/project?

In this connected model of leadership, leaders are no longer pressured to have all the answers, all the time. Understanding this is helpful when you’re leading a group of wicked-smart people—and it’s one of the things that I appreciate about leadership at Atomic. If Carl, Mary, Mike, Shawn, or Darrell don’t have “the” answer, they won’t attempt to explain their way into it. They’ll simply admit that they don’t know. Often, they’ll open the floor to ideas from the group, tapping into a collective brain trust to find an answer that’s second-to-none.

In addition to recognizing that they don’t have all the answers, an effective leader is open to critique and feedback that can help them grow stronger as a person and a leader. However, as I wrote in my last post, effective critique is never about the person. It’s about the work. If you find yourself in a position where the difference between the two isn’t clear, I suggest you hang back and listen to others before you hop in.

A Question of Scalability

The challenge with this sort of approach is finding a way to make it scale. If the key to success is in maintaining connection and relationship with the other nodes in your network, how can you do that as your network grows? In a wider organization, there is simply less of you to go around, which means less time, less energy, and less capacity to lead.

One possible solution would be to take what you have and distribute it into smaller portions. But this has some intrinsic drawbacks. Have you ever used spray glue? It’s a quick and easy way to connect two elements without a lot of mess, and you can get a lot of work done. But the next day, that work will start to peel up at the edges. It isn’t quality work. It isn’t built to last. Same goes for the smaller portions approach to leadership. If you spread yourself too far, you’ll have a very light connection with a bunch of people. It won’t last.

On the other end of the spectrum is the prospect of investing deeply in a smaller number of people. This presents another scalability problem. If we hold to the glue analogy, this approach is something like using Elmer’s Glue. It’s much more permanent. But I’ll be damned if it isn’t messy, and it takes forever to dry. There’s no way to speed up that process without compromising the quality of the adhesive.

So what’s a leader to do? If you want a quality connection with those other nodes in your network, the key is transparency. Accept that you’re a finite human being who won’t be able to connect deeply with everyone in your network, then find strategic relationships with people who can help maintain quality connections with the nodes you won’t be able to reach yourself. Live out that relationship with those individuals in transparency. Talk openly about your approach. Open yourself up to thoughtful and kind critique from others.

The challenge of remaining available to everyone in your network while running a business and being successful is a complex problem deserving of experimentation. And experimentation is never better than when there are many people involved giving thoughtful critique. I’m interested to hear what others have found as they’ve led in organizations of intelligent, thoughtful innovators.

  • Paul Newton says:

    “experimentation is never better when there are many people involved giving thoughtful critique” – “even better”?

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