The New Leadership is Horizontal, Not Vertical

Horizontal LeadershipSeveral decades ago, when “leadership” became a Big Thing, it was heavily personality-based. It posited Leadership as something done by Leaders, who had learned the art of how to Lead. As a consultant friend of mine, Renee Wingo, put it, “It’s a subject whose proponents can’t figure out whether it’s a noun, a verb, or a gerund.”

Leaders were thought of as those who were followed by others. This dichotomy fed the idea that there are two kinds of people in this world – those who lead, and those who follow. Besides reinforcing the personality-based view of leadership, it raises the classic make or buy question – are Leaders just born, or can their secrets be unlocked and learned by others?

Finally, this distinction between leaders and followers fed a natural assumption that those roles were vertically related within an organization. Think military chain of command. Think bosses and subordinates.  To this day you’ll find many business writers harping on “the difference between leaders and managers,” as if the terms carried some ordained meaning.  In any case, it meant that leaders outranked followers.

Warren Bennis was (and still is) the [leading] guru of leadership. Much of what he has written is about Great Leaders, whether as exemplars, or as subjects in their own right. He held conversations with Leaders, who basked in his attention as much as he did in theirs. The majority of Bennis’s many book titles on the subject center around the noun “leader.”

Leadership development, in this personality-based view of the subject, was something that companies offered to elite groups – those with “high potential,” who had the inner capabilities to become leaders of others. The few, the proud, the Leaders – those were the ones granted the key to the next level.

Away from Personality-based Leadership

That was then; this is now. Things have changed, gradually but firmly. The concept of a hierarchical, vertical relationship between “leaders” and “followers” or “managers” has become less and less descriptive of the world of business. In its place we have networks, webs, relationships, alliances, collaborations, joint ventures, ecosystems, cultures, and communities.

This is not just a function of web-based aggregations, or faddish vocabulary. It is built into industrial structure, with much greater global sourcing, modular supply chains, and focus on core businesses. Language follows structure, not the other way ’round.

Enter Horizontal Leadership

What that means for leadership is simple but profound: the essential relationships are no longer the vertical relationships contained within corporate silos,  but the horizontal ones that link people across organizational boundaries. The New Leadership isn’t vertical, it’s horizontal.

This forces us to do a better job of defining leadership.  It never was about getting people to follow; it was about getting things done. It still is. Except now you get things done less by lining up the troops, and more by generating movement around a common goal. Horizontal leadership might be defined as “persuading others over whom you have absolutely no direct control to join you in a common cause.”

The “skills” of old and new leadership certainly overlap. You can’t lead horizontally or vertically if people think you’re dull, or an ass-kisser, or hopelessly insecure. But there are differences. The skills of horizontal leadership rhyme with influence, persuasion, and trust. Particularly trust.

Because the biggest difference between vertical and horizontal leadership is reciprocity. To be a vertical leader, you don’t have to be a good follower. But to be a good horizontal leader, you must know how to be trusted – and how to trust. It is not enough to be trustworthy; you must also be a risk-taker, and know how to be vulnerable, two prerequisites of the ability to trust.

Vertical leadership, like command and control, largely goes one way – from top down. But horizontal leadership is best practiced through trust, and trust is bi-lateral; you have to be good at trusting, and at being trusted. “Leader” is not a permanent attribute – it is a mindset/skill-set/role that is played at a given time by a given person, who the next day must play, equally well, the role of follower.

Which means, in today’s world, we each have to behave as leaders, or we simply don’t succeed. This is not New Age pablum-talk; it is a meaningful statement. In a networked, connected world, the skills of playing nicely together in the sandbox – horizontal leadership – cannot be squandered on an elite “high-potential” group; they have to be broadly taught. The concept of leadership development needs democratizing.

The future of leadership is horizontal, not vertical; and the future of horizontal leadership is learning the ways of trust. That means teaching trusting, and being trusted. And it means an approach to teaching leadership that is far more broadly-based than it has been.