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Why organisations need leadership more than leaders

Why organisations need leadership more than leaders:

An introduction to an organisational leadership architecture that will help you redefine leadership.

The way we view leadership is changing. Single entities are no longer present. Instead, a culture of collaboration is sweeping through businesses of all shapes and sizes, culminating in success at all levels.  However, this is a change that doesn’t happen overnight. It takes pragmatic thinking and the willingness of everyone involved to adopt a different approach and a different mind-set. Sounds a bit daunting, we know. But it’s all very straightforward when you know how.  So, we’ll let you in on the secret, also known as Organisational Leadership Architecture™ (OLA™). We’ll even show you how the military (renowned for its regimented style of leadership) pulled it off. And if they can do it, so can you.

The new view of leadership. Man and woman at work.

The new view of leadership

Senior leaders in global organisations tell us that the demands on them and their organisations have never been greater. They say it’s because:

  • Speed of execution is important to stay ahead of the competition
  • Innovative solutions are mandatory as the environment and customer needs change
  • Collaboration and the communication that enables it are critical to capitalise on the power and potential of complex matrix organisations

With more required from less, the question emerges as to whether leadership has evolved to meet these growing demands. Last century’s leadership theories focused in majority on the individual characteristics and traits that exemplified leadership, such as skills, personality and charisma (Katz, 1955; Mumford 2000; Conger 1999; House 1976). However contemporary research is now focusing on building organisations’ leadership from the few to the many.

Distributed Leadership Theory (Gronn, 2000; O’Connor & Quinn 2004) and Shared Leadership Theory propose that leadership “is a dynamic, interactive influence process among individuals in a group for which the objective is to lead one another to the achievement of group or organisational goals or both” (Pearce & Conger 2003, P.1). Hay Group’s 2010 Best Companies for Leadership sees pioneering organisations as having the ability to demonstrate ‘everyone leading from everywhere’ through collaboration. Whilst it sounds both sensible and appealing for organisations to build ‘top to toe’ leadership capability, it is often very hard to translate the theory into practical and applicable understanding in the face of turbulent, complex and often virtual environments. A strong dose of pragmatism is therefore required to liberate potential and enhance capacity.

If organisations aim to strive for success by setting challenging goals (Locke, 1986) a solution-focused mind-set is required that asks the right questions to achieve them. In parallel, leaders need to do the ‘right’ things. McGregor’s (1960) Theory Y suggests that by creating the right conditions for your people, success will follow. Combining this leadership mind-set with the conditions that are required for success, provides a simple, yet powerful, blueprint with which leaders at every level can align.

We propose that this framework, called the Organisational Leadership Architecture(OLA™), provides the overarching approach for every individual to contribute to achieving organisational success.

Aligning leadership thinking and action

At the heart of the OLA is a completely different view of leadership itself. Many leaders see their roles as being about setting tasks and assessing results. For leadership to work at all levels, a new perspective is required: one that combines the way leaders across the organisation need to think with the way they need to act to ensure sustainable success.

The first dimension of the Organisational Leadership Architecture is the leadership mind-set. Leaders are constantly asking themselves three fundamental questions:

  • What are we trying to achieve and why?
  • Where are we now?
  • What will we do to close the gap?

Aligning leadership thinking and action - team at work.

The second dimension looks at the conditions that need to be created for success. These conditions are clarity, climate and competence.

  • Clarity is about direction and approach
  • Climate concerns practical tools, processes and culture
  • Competence is about equipping teams and individuals with the behaviour, attitude, knowledge and skills to do the job.

At an individual level, do you know what the organisation is trying to achieve and why and also your role in it? Do you have what you need to do the job and are you willing and able to do it?

Full answers to these questions go beyond strategy to include all the conditions that will make it successful. The leader can therefore ask themselves:

  • Where are we going in terms of clarity, climate and competence?
  • Where are we now in terms of clarity, climate and competence?
  • What do I need to do to close the gaps in clarity, climate and competence?

These two dimensions combine to form a powerful Meta model which provides direction, and focus for leaders. This view of Organisational Leadership Architecture changes the shape of how leadership is sometimes regarded: from the few to the many, from disconnected to holistic and from cumbersome to agile.

We explore Organisational Leadership Architecture from three perspectives in order to identify consistent themes: the military, musical and business and to demonstrate its practical application. This paper proposes that the model of Organisational Leadership Architecture can be applied to all organisations to enable them to respond quickly and effectively to changing circumstances.

We conclude by suggesting that whilst individual leaders can achieve great things, aligned leadership is exponentially more powerful when it is enabled by leadership architecture. Leadership is about both the individuals demonstrating it and the leadership system or ‘architecture’ that enable agile, adaptable and sustainable organisations.


Lessons from the military: Empowerment, not command and control enables rapid response

No plan survives first contact with the enemy.  Field Marshall von Moltk

Empowerment not command and control. Team being empowered.An elite team of soldiers moves forward toward their objective under the cover of darkness. As they perform their final reconnaissance before attacking, they discover a different objective; one not mentioned in their orders or known to their leaders. They have a choice. They can complete the plan as ordered, or decide if this new objective is a better one and attack it instead. They cannot do both. They cannot ask for direction as any communication will betray their position. Make the right decision and they may save many lives, including their own. Get it wrong and the feedback will be immediate and permanent. They have little time to consider their options; speed of execution is critical. How do they decide?

Military organisations have been dealing with the issue of rapid response for thousands of years, and have developed an effective and instinctive approach. The basis of this approach is to understand the ‘higher intent’ of the broader organisation. In other words, every soldier needs to be really clear about what the organisation is trying to achieve, and why. The soldiers in our example have complete clarity of what must be achieved and why and their role in achieving it. This means that they are in a position to decide whether the original objective or the new one best meet the higher intent.

Contrary to popular opinion, military leadership is developed at all levels. Not only are individuals at every level allowed to make decisions, they are required and trained to do so.

The climate is thus established within which individuals can make the best decision for themselves and the organisation. Of course, the climate is not just about processes and common language. It is also about culture.

Dr Nick Jans of the Australian Defence College is an acknowledged expert in the field of military leadership and originator of the expression ‘command architecture’. He proposes that the bedrock of an effective military leadership system is ‘collaboration’ underpinned by the values of reliability, versatility and resilience. There is a culture of empowerment that is critical to rapid response and speed of execution, both of which are essential to success and safety. This concept of values and behaviours that support the higher intent is instantly applicable for any organisation – describing ‘how’ an organisation goes about its business and providing the people within it the behavioural guidelines required for success.

Military organisations have processes for decision-making and briefing for execution and everyone is thoroughly rehearsed in their use. These are key leadership competences in these organisations. They are provided with tools and checklists, similar to those used by pilots, to enable rapid application under any circumstances.

Central to all this is the core principle that leaders and followers at every level see themselves as subordinate to the overall purpose and mission.

Lessons from music: Innovation while singing from the same song sheet

There’s probably no better example of democracy than a jazz ensemble; individual freedom but with responsibility to the group.

Michelle Obama

A jazz band is in the middle of a fast paced, complex number, playing to a large crowd. Each musician is taking it in turns to go solo – improvising a completely new melody that expresses their own interpretation within the overall theme. This individual creativity takes the piece to new heights and delights the audience. The sax player is next up and the band has never played with him before. How does he know what to play? How can his individual creativity be expressed without derailing the whole band?

While the risks faced by the musicians are in no way similar to those of the soldiers, the principles behind the success of both groups are the same: a shared purpose, the structures that bind them and the skills to make decisions. The key for musicians lies in an aligned understanding of the structural disciplines of rhythm, melody and harmony.

These ‘musical handcuffs’ allow the individual soloists the freedom of expression within the framework and common. Each band member has a shared understanding of the desired outcome and is prepared to work as a team to achieve the higher intent. A senior member of an orchestra conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy captured this sentiment: “Here is a man at the top of his profession and he always puts the music above himself. Not everyone of that stature does the same.” A vibrant climate of feedback ensures that soloists who play for too long, or in a self- indulgent way that does not serve this higher purpose will know that they have stepped out of line!

In summary, a successful musical ensemble is one that has initial clarity of the purpose and intended outcomes which are, in turn, achieved by creating a climate of teamwork and individual creativity through a shared understanding and common language. The intended musical outcome leads the musicians to use their expertise, while ensuring that they all play from the same song sheet. These concepts are relevant no matter the size of a musical ensemble, where a musician’s career path requires building technical expertise as well as performing different leadership roles within that ensemble.

organisational leadership architecture

Lessons from business: Collaborating to ensure sustainability

Leadership, not Leaders, is the key… it is the actions leaders take as a group to build the leadership within the organisation, not the personalities of the individual leaders that are critical

Mt Eliza, 2002, Australia’s top 199 organisations

A business unit within a highly successful financial institution sets its objective to double profits in three years with a maximum 35% increase in staff. They achieved this goal in less than three years with a key focus on staff, risk and productivity. So what did they do and how did the actions of the senior leaders develop a legacy of success which sustained the business even during the global financial crisis?

In looking for the solution, the senior directors decided to take an organisational approach to developing leadership within their business unit which would build the capacity of the business beyond the boundaries of a few leaders, and which harnessed talent right the way to the frontline through collaboration.

The first step was establishing clarity. This was developed around an inspiring vision which determined not only what they were trying to achieve but, most importantly, why (or the purpose), and by doing so gave a greater sense of meaning and engagement to the staff. Seems simple, but experience shows us that many visions fail to deliver. Similarly, those who are meant to be motivated by that vision are often not.

So how did the senior directors create clarity of information and, critically, clarity of understanding? They communicated compelling key messages to their staff in a national road show with the aim of creating a workforce which was engaged and motivated to explore new ways to work together. The communication was repeated in different ways, often soliciting feedback to ensure everyone understood.

Often enthusiasm fades and the vision dims once everyone returns to the office. Not in this case, where the working climate was stimulated by a radical redecoration of the offices and significant investment was also made in back-office processes. Organisational and individual cultural and leadership style diagnostics were carried out for feedback of the business.

In driving the ‘what do we need to do to close the gaps’ question, competence was developed at every level to innovate and collaborate as the business grew. With aligned leadership skills and competencies the culture became aligned and common approaches to decision making and planning became systematised within the business.

When the global financial crisis arrived, the investment in people, processes and time paid off. Profits grew in Business Unit A (see graph) unlike in neighbouring Business Unit B which, with poor direction, little investment in its people and decision-making by a few elite leaders, was ultimately wound up.

Connecting the threads

We have established that Organisational Leadership Architecture is paramount to success across the three different perspectives. Everyone is equipped to use this architecture enabling leadership at every level, regardless of formal authority. In a broader organisational context, people in every location use the system to understand what needs to be done, why and how. It enables rapid decision-making, empowerment and the flexibility to succeed even when the situation changes. The language and leadership processes used are the same, thus avoiding ambiguity and miscommunication. This is critical in complex matrices where success depends on people operating remotely.

How then does this apply to the challenges outlined by our senior leaders and how is this reflected in recent research?

Speed of Execution

Our survey tells us that for senior leaders, “Setting the strategy is easy… executing is a greater challenge”. It seems it’s not the ‘what’ of strategy but the ‘how’ which is challenging. Leaders at the lowest levels identified ‘defining organisational direction’ as their biggest challenge. This suggests that strategy is not being communicated in a meaningful way and that clarity is not shared at every level.

This does not augur well for the implementation of a strategy. From all three perspectives, shared purpose, vision, values and clear strategies act as the ‘light on the hill’. However, if the climate includes a common language of leadership and leaders are competent to use it, then there is a realistic chance of alignment around the direction at every level. For example, in our successful business, leaders relied on ‘common language’ and a culture of collaboration, as well as skilled communication to deliver messages that resulted in not only clarity but tight focus and alignment at every level.


Let’s assume that there is a common understanding that innovation is key to sustainable success. Clarity, while present, is not enough. Developing an enabling climate, through creating a common language or ‘wiring’, and a culture that encourages risk taking and learns from mistakes will enable all levels to innovatively adapt to changing needs and requirements. Paradoxically, innovation is enabled by common decision-making processes, systems and culture that provide the structure to enable innovation by enabling people from different countries, departments and functions to talk the same language.

For example, our musicians are by nature creative; pushing the boundaries for their art and the enjoyment of the audience is what they do. But they, too, work within a framework of the music. The culture is one of individual creativity and also teamwork to support the endeavour. Herein lies the paradox: working within a framework gives them complete freedom. Where we find multiple leadership languages and frameworks introduced through diverse and misaligned initiatives, the outcomes are usually costly and ineffective in the medium and long term. To quote Craig Scott, Head of the Jazz Unit at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music – how can we enable our teams to ‘explore without subverting the purpose’?


Do clarity and climate, in place and understood at every level, guarantee an effective operation? Of course not. We can be clear and motivated, equipped with the necessary tools and support, as well as having access to a common language of leadership, but there is no guarantee that we will use any of them unless we know how.

All leaders must develop their competence in a way which is appropriate to their own level of the ‘Leadership Pipeline’. It is the competence of the leader that creates the clarity, climate and competence for those that follow.

Let’s return to our soldiers. They were in a position where they had a difficult, ‘life or death’ decision to make at the frontline. Instant access to a clear, analytical decision-making process and the unconscious competence to quickly apply it enables success. The training required to do this is extensive and multi-level. In this example, the decision-making competence is at the frontline leadership level, but exactly the same process is applied to any situation at every level, only the level of complexity changes. The architecture and required levels of competence to use them remain the same. The soldiers were also empowered through clearly understanding the mission and through a culture of delegation and trust.


In business, it is the example set by senior leaders which dictates what other people will do. As Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers said, “The days of being vertically integrated and having everything within your control will never return. The entire leadership team, including me, had to invent a different way to operate. It was hard for me at first to learn to be collaborative.” (Harvard Business Review, Nov 2008)

As leaders transition through the ‘Leadership Pipeline’, they must examine what behaviour must be embraced and what is left behind − the leadership architecture remains the same. Developing an Organisational Leadership Architecture to achieve performance is fast becoming the number one priority of successful organisations. It is ‘core’ to the organisation’s function rather than an ‘elective’.

Asking the ‘3Ws’ questions within the three conditions for success of clarity, climate and competence comprise the Organisational Leadership Architecture and enable leaders and their organisations to deliver exceptional results.

Impact case studies

Creating leadership at all levels

Our micro case studies below examine the high impact, sustainable results achieved across varying business environments. Starting with your challenge, we demonstrate the power of Ola in action – as a pragmatic model for planning and accomplishing goals.

Independent music company – business turnaround

Global IT company – enabling front line leadership






World bank network – becoming customer-centric







Business Impact Case Study: Fortune 100 IT company – building sales






Seize the day and unlock the potential of Ola at www.liw3.com

About LIW

Founded in 1995 in Sydney, LIW is a global leadership consultancy with a track record for delivering immediate and sustainable impact through its leadership solutions. It’s a bit of a mouthful, but essentially we support companies, countries and communities to achieve success by building aligned leadership mind sets and behaviours at all levels, that can maximise human potential to deliver results.

Improving lives by transforming the experience of work through leadership.

We believe in partnership and invest deeply in your performance either as a leader, in your teams, or across your entire organisation. The customer experience we aim to deliver is “high impact – low maintenance”. That means everything we do should have a positive and measurable impact on your performance and goals, and we should be easy (and fun) to work with.


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