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What is the role of Senior Leadership in Human Organisations?

Given Human Organisations require a much more bottom-up approach, where does that leave the Senior Leadership?

There remains a place for Senior Leadership to articulate direction and boundaries. But, put simply, the new paradigm puts a far greater onus on Senior Leaders serving and resourcing employees than the current model does. They are more like stewards, curators, counsellors, conveners or social architects than they are the "Hero Visionary" we are used to hearing about.

Crudely, you could say the traditional model mostly has employees working for their manager and the new paradigm mostly has managers working for their employees.

The shift is to do with where we assume value is created and knowledge held. The current model believes it increases with seniority. The new paradigm believes it exists amongst the front line employees.

Below we cover a shortlist of four contexts that could remain or become a vital part of a Senior Leader’s existence. Together these roles allow leaders to, what we call, “Curate the Context” for a more human way to work.

A Philosophical Starting Point

Organisations characterised by more freedom believe everyone should take responsibility for their choices and culture. They don't default to blaming something else, e.g. executives who might be modelling bad behaviour or unhelpful systems.

The consequence is that shifting responsibility from leader to employee reduces the expectation of Senior Leaders to be perfect. But this is a truth held in tension: leaders should remain self-motivated to pursue excellence, decency and personal mastery (see: "What is 'personal mastery'?").

1: The personal work - What behaviour is important?

Personal Nourishment

If organisations are to confront the lack of humanity in the system then Senior Leaders must address it in themselves. This means scheduling time to invest in their whole selves: mind, body and soul. This will be one of their most challenging tasks in a demanding personal and professional schedule that has probably spiralled out of control. But, without this, asking employees to bring their whole selves to work will be seen as an inauthentic performance ploy. Whatsmore, Leaders will need the rest, energy and identity that investing in oneself provides.

Personal Purpose

We need to connect employees’ personal purpose with that of their organisation. Senior Leadership are not exempt from this. If they’re going to ask employees to find more meaning at work, then they must begin by finding their own.

Moral Courage

Things are improving, but Moral Courage has long been absent from the boardroom. This is often a Senior Leader’s toughest yet most important role.

Personal Application

They should be willing to personally apply what they ask of others. In particular, this means being willing to shift the tone and language of their organisations to something more intentionally authentic, honest and emotional. To show vulnerability. To act with humility. To seek forgiveness and reconciliation. All the relational traits that we value in relationships outside the workplace are not only now relevant in the workplace: they are necessary. We can't hope to build relational organisations if we aren't prepared to engage with all that real, committed relationships involve.

2: The executive work - Which duties remain similar?

Providing Clarity

A constant effort to communicate clearly what they require from the organisation; how they see the outside world; what the boundaries are; what business they’re in; where their organisation’s social license to operate comes from etc.

Final Say

Having a more equitable working environment, where employees find genuine freedom, does not mean Senior Leadership loses its voice. If the norm is, say, 85/15 in their favour, we’re not suggesting a reversal or anything below 50/50. 51/49? That may well be the case. But Senior Leadership has a high-level perspective that others don’t and that protects their right to final say.

Organisation Structure

Senior Leadership is responsible for deciding how the organisation should be structured. Their broad perspective of the ecosystem which the organisation inhabits, and the marketplaces it forms part of, give them this authority.

Setting Boundaries

Senior Leadership can set boundaries for what or who the organisation is involved with. This includes setting limitations to the services and products. This is an area where Moral Courage may frequently be called upon: what markets they are going to be part of; what pricing strategies are they going to pursue. etc.

Thinking and Dreaming

This is massive. Too many Senior Leaders have become over absorbed in problem-solving and the day to day operations.  Accepting too great a management burden has come at the time cost of thinking and dreaming. Distributing authority should make room for what really matters - thinking about what matters!

3: The redesign work - What change work must be pursued?

Redistributing Privilege

For freedom to work within an organisation, Senior Leadership must redistribute the privileges and protections they enjoy.

Reimagining Functions

Whole departments, particularly finance and human resources, need totally reimagining in freedom centred workplaces; a big task that’s loaded with emotional and practical challenges. Renaming functions or groups are part of this process -as it is symbolic and shifts mindset. But it's risky if unaccompanied by real discussion and action. Not least because most core functions and groups need wholesale redesigning, not just renaming. The function that receives the most attention is "Human Resources" because, understandably, it so obviously makes human beings sound like factory inputs. But HR needs redesigning, not just renaming. Renaming Senior Leadership is less urgent and more complex because organisations still need leadership. But any renaming should carry the tone of service not control and, vitally, be true to how it operates. To name a few: Partner, Counsel, Consul, Curator, Associate, Broker, Coordinator, Advocate, Agent, Factor, Ambassador, Advisor, Custodian, Agent, Delegate, Representative, Host, Moderator, Steward are some of the words being used and explored in this space. As a point of interest, consider that the US's most senior public servants are called "Secretary of...".

Dismantling Bureaucracy

Finding processes that slow things down; considering the impact of predict-and-control (see: "What is predict and control?") and management-by-objectives (see: "What is management by objectives?"); talking to stakeholders about where life could be improved; piloting new ideas. There’s a lot to unravel and rethink.

Rules for Redesigning

Building more human workplaces is a redesign effort which touches on some of the most sensitive elements of an organisation. It is therefore important that Senior Leadership applies some limitations, even temporary ones, to ensure change does not get sidelined by politics. For example, early in the change process, a Senior Leader may decide not to fiddle with the remuneration system. This kind of control is, arguably, close to the status quo way of operating but it can be an effective way to prevent change being derailed early on.

Social contracts

Social contracts are the (often unspoken) agreements we make in our relationships.  For example, employees show loyalty by doing whatever they’re asked but expect the boss to fight their corner with the organisation in return. In freedom workplaces, these social contracts need verbalising and intentionally redefining.

Reshaping Rewards

Organisations need to move from a rewards-based to a more recognition-based system. Behavioural science tells us financial reward is not the prime motivator we have long thought it to be: meaning is. Senior Leadership needs to recognise this and rethink incentivisation. This is not about paying people less. If anything, it's probably about paying most of the people in the organisation more. Either way, it does involve re-evaluating the wisdom and application of performance pay.

Information Distribution

If organisations are like gardens, then information is like water. The status quo hordes it as a power play. Senior Leaders must find ways to increase and broaden the level of transparency.

4: The daily work - What is needed on a more day-to-day basis? 

Customer facing

Senior Leadership has become so distracted by the need to manage (not lead) that they’ve stopped doing the actual work. Nobody within any organisation should spend their entire time managing other people; everyone, whatever their position, should also do some of the core work on a fairly regular basis.

Offer clarity on what, not how

This is the main point at where the boundary setting role of Senior Leaders starts to end and the employees start to take over. To do so, business units must constantly "purchase" the freedom they desire with promises to commit to the organisation’s Guiding Principles and a set of outcomes. In return, Senior Leadership remains a key architect of what those outcomes are: not how the units are expected to get there, but certainly as a contributor to where they’re expected to go.

Focusing Efforts

The role here is less to illuminate what’s going on within the organisation but more to apply a spotlight on what to focus on: choosing (with guidance) what to change, how to resource it and where to begin. This does not mean they articulate how to solve problems - Senior Leadership needs to get far better at highlighting issues without feeling the need to instruct on how to solve them.


Senior Leaders should consider rethinking the traditional mentorship model and place themselves into co-mentorship relationships. Mentorship perpetuates the teacher-student relationship. We want to try and break that down. For more insight on this method, see: "Co-Mentorship: A Block Approach"

Offer access to commercial Literacy

Employees are woefully underprepared for the working world, let alone something with more responsibility and accountability. We can’t expect the average employee to leap into a heightened level of decision making authority without furnishing them with the tools to do so. That we have kept so many employees uninformed about the reality of running an organisation illustrates the lack of shared purpose and endeavour within an organisation and the loneliness and exhaustion that is rife within the ranks of Senior Leaders. A huge effort is required to educate them in everything from ”what is debt?” is to “how do we read a P&L?”. Senior Leadership must make this happen.

Broker & Banker

Teams and business units need resources. Senior Leaders are a key help for resourcing employees with what they ask for to get the job done - from finances to relationships. This role best encapsulates the shift from people working for those above them, to those in authority serving those below.

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  1. John Featherby

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