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Top-Down Leadership Doesn't Always Work in Today's Complex World

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There's no single definition of leadership. Whether they opt to emulate Sun Tzu or Steve Jobs, project professionals should assess their teams and organizations to carve out their own leadership strategies, plenary speaker Andy Craggs told project professionals at the PMI® Global Congress 2012 -- EMEA in Marseille, France.

Mr. Craggs, a global business consultant at The Learning Partnership, dubbed today's business world as VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.

As a result, the top-down, individual-driven leadership style prevalent 10 years ago is no longer as effective. Instead, leadership must happen at four levels: society, organization, group and individual.
That means leaders must cross boundaries to encourage interdependence, collaboration and innovation among three types of people:

  • Conservers tend to be reliable, promoting the organization's underlying system and values while striving for constant improvement.

  • Pragmatists build cooperation and gather input from as many sources as possible to seek common ground.

  • Originators have long-range vision and seek to lead via new approaches and systems.
Mr. Craggs emphasized to the attendees that they must tailor their message to their audience, as each of the three groups will react differently.

Drawing on his time working with Disney and Apple, Mr. Craggs demonstrated how different leadership styles can be effective in the proper context.
At Disney, the bulk of activity takes place in the operations sector, with the focus on protecting intellectual property and the brand. In the modern VUCA world, though, Disney's top-down leadership doesn't always work. Although the company did enjoy a record box office debut for its movie The Avengers, it has struggled to compete in the application and video game development fields.
Apple takes the opposite approach. The organization's leadership, being more agile and connected across the organization, is more responsive to market changes -- which has allowed it to thrive.
Mr. Cragg concluded his presentation by identifying three types of organizational leadership cultures:

  • Dependent: A top-down, hierarchical structure that can be effective in very large, siloed organizations, like Disney 

  • Independent: Characteristic of organizations with specialized but not necessarily connected functions, such as Apple

  • Interdependent: Typically function with agile, interconnected networks within the organization, a style common at companies like Twitter
By knowing the characteristics of themselves, those around them and their organizations, project professionals can tailor their leadership approach to maximize their chances of success.


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I am instructing a group of graduate students on project management. This week's lesson is on project leadership. I would like to ask my fellow project managers to comment along with my students on the following: "How is leading a project different from managing it?" Thank you

Hi Cyndee,

Thank you for this article. Indeed, every organization have different needs.

Recognizing what's best for our team is really important, it's different strokes for different folks.

Good article!

But top-down leadership always leaves a lot on the table. Top-down tends to demotivate and demoralize employees by its orders, goals, targets, and the like.

The difference between being demotivated and highly motivated is on the order of 500% if you believe Stephen Covey. So how much of that is left on the table by top-down.

No matter what your organization does, it can do far far better if it adopts an "autonomy and support" method of managing people. Although the methods and tools of so doing are not well known, they are easy to learn and easy to execute.

Ben Simonton
Author "Leading People to be Highly Motivated and Committed"

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