Peer-to-Peer Leadership

Why the Network Is the Leader

Mila Baker (Author)

Publication date: 12/10/2013

Peer-to-Peer Leadership
  • Shows that a radically decentralized approach can revolutionize leadership just as it has revolutionized computer networking
  • Turns leadership on its head-the job of the leader is not to tell followers what to do but to create, enable, and facilitate a network of peer leaders
  • Features examples of what some organizations are doing and what all organizations can do to implement and benefit from this new approach

Our leadership models are still stuck in a top-down, command-and-control, Industrial Age mentality. But our globalized, data-drenched, 24/7 world is just too complex, with too much information coming from too many different directions, for any single person or group of people to stay on top of it. The idea of hierarchy is breaking down everywhere, from politics to religion to social relationships-why should leadership be any different?

Mila Baker's inspiration for a new way to lead is the peer-to-peer model of computing, which is also mirrored in social networking and crowdsource technologies. She shows that a network with "equipotent" nodes of power-think peer leaders-is infinitely more powerful than a "client-server" (leader-follower) network.

In organizations of equipotent nodes, leadership isn't fixed or siloed-it shifts based on the particular strengths of individuals and the particular needs of a situation. Rather than being guided into narrow predetermined channels, information flows freely so those who need it can find it easily and are empowered to act on it immediately. Constant change is built into the very structure of these organizations, and giving feedback is no longer a separate (and often dreaded and ineffective) process but becomes an organic part of the workflow, enabling rapid course corrections.

Baker still advocates the need for top-level executives and senior leaders, but their job is to optimize the health of the network rather than issue commands. Companies such as Gore and Herman Miller practice these principles and have achieved long-term success-Baker provides a structure for this approach that any organization can adapt to build flexibility, resiliency, and accountability.

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Overview

  • Shows that a radically decentralized approach can revolutionize leadership just as it has revolutionized computer networking
  • Turns leadership on its head-the job of the leader is not to tell followers what to do but to create, enable, and facilitate a network of peer leaders
  • Features examples of what some organizations are doing and what all organizations can do to implement and benefit from this new approach

Our leadership models are still stuck in a top-down, command-and-control, Industrial Age mentality. But our globalized, data-drenched, 24/7 world is just too complex, with too much information coming from too many different directions, for any single person or group of people to stay on top of it. The idea of hierarchy is breaking down everywhere, from politics to religion to social relationships-why should leadership be any different?

Mila Baker's inspiration for a new way to lead is the peer-to-peer model of computing, which is also mirrored in social networking and crowdsource technologies. She shows that a network with "equipotent" nodes of power-think peer leaders-is infinitely more powerful than a "client-server" (leader-follower) network.

In organizations of equipotent nodes, leadership isn't fixed or siloed-it shifts based on the particular strengths of individuals and the particular needs of a situation. Rather than being guided into narrow predetermined channels, information flows freely so those who need it can find it easily and are empowered to act on it immediately. Constant change is built into the very structure of these organizations, and giving feedback is no longer a separate (and often dreaded and ineffective) process but becomes an organic part of the workflow, enabling rapid course corrections.

Baker still advocates the need for top-level executives and senior leaders, but their job is to optimize the health of the network rather than issue commands. Companies such as Gore and Herman Miller practice these principles and have achieved long-term success-Baker provides a structure for this approach that any organization can adapt to build flexibility, resiliency, and accountability.

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Meet the Author


Visit Author Page - Mila Baker

Mila Baker is Associate Professor, Academic Chair and Director of the M.S. Human Resource & Organization Development program and Interim Director, M.S. Management & Systems program at New York University – School for Continuing & Professional Studies. She has over 20 years experience in leadership roles in large multinational organizations including Ethicon Endo-Surgery a Johnson & Johnson company, Pfizer Inc. Dana Corporation and the World Bank in Washington, DC. She lives in New York City. She holds an MA and Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and Organizational Behavior from the University of Cincinnati in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is a Past Chair of the Organization Development Network and a past Board member of Human Resource People & Strategy. She is a member of the Academy of Management, the NTL Institute and the Society for Human Resource Management. She is also a licensed psychologist. She can be reached at: Twitter

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Table of Contents

Preface

About This Book

Chapter 1: The Language of Leadership

Leadership and the Tech Revolution

Individuality and Equality

What Is Peer-to-Peer Computing Technology and How Is It Related to Leadership?

The Difference between a New Theory and a Paradigm Shift

Summary

Chapter 2: Node Community

What Is a Node Community?

The Power of Node Communities:

Instant Information Sharing

Power to Create Change and the Dangers of Misinformation

Disruption of Traditional Communication Models 26

ON THE P2P PATH: Giant Hydra

The Value of Node Communities in Organizations

Efficient and Effective Flow of Information

The Expertise of the Whole Community

Nimbleness and Response to Change

Real-Time Feedback and Dialogue

Summary

Chapter 3: Organizational Equipotency

The Power of Equipotency in Organizations

All Nodes Are Created Equal: Everyone Leads and Everyone Follows

Driven by Communication (Nodes)

The Value of Equipotency in Organizations

Serving as an Enabler

Driving Commitment

Engendering Positive Intent

Motivating Everyone to Give Their Best

Implications for Organization Design

ON THE P2P PATH: BMW Designworks

Implications for a New Leadership Paradigm

Summary

Chapter 4: Relational Dynamics

ON THE P2P PATH: Google

Relational Dynamics

ON THE P2P PATH: Stiletto Network

The Value of Relational Dynamics

People, Information, and Connections

Organizational Anarchy

Shared Decision Making and Governance

Implications for a New Leadership Paradigm

Summary

Chapter 5: From Survival of the Fittest to Survival of the Connected

Darwin Misinterpreted

Adaptation and Mitigation

Protective Processes

Solving Problem Solving

Summary

Chapter 6: The Flow of Information

Traditional Barriers to Communication

Day-to-Day Sharing: Network as Communication Infrastructure

Benefits of the Open Transfer of Information

Summary

Chapter 7: Nimbleness and Change

P2P and Drivers for Change

The Space and Time for Change

The Evolutionary Model

The Dialectical Model

The Teleological Model

The Life Cycle and Cultural Models

A Case for P2P Architecture: Herman Miller

Summary

Chapter 8: Real-Time Feedback and Dialogue

Starbucks: Two Observations, Two Outcomes

ON THE P2P PATH: NYU-A Global Network University

A Better Way

Summary

Chapter 9: Implications for Organization Design

Why is P2P Architecture Important?

The Work Experience

ON THE P2P PATH: Hot Spots Movement

The Work Environment

Summary

Chapter 10: Implications for Leadership

Organization Formation

ON THE P2P PATH: ROWE

Human Resources and Organization Development

Questioning Traditional Leadership

Leadership as a Dyad Exchange Structure

Summary

Moving Forward

ON THE P2P PATH:: Paul Polman at Unilever

Notes

Acknowledgments

Index 165

About the Author 169

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Excerpt

Peer-to-Peer Leadership

1
The Language of Leadership

The current definitions and historical models of leadership are rooted in the relationship between two entities—leader and follower. Terms such as “leader-member,” “in-group and out-group,” “power over,” talent and workforce, and “power through” highlight the traditional models, while terms such as “empowerment,” “subordinates,” and “followers” conjure up images of servitude and second-class citizenship. All of them differentiate each entity in terms of status and imply a certain level of inequality. There is no job description for or position called “Follower Specialist.” The role of follower is more often than not viewed in negative terms while the role of leader represents a virtuous mantle of aspiration. Leadership was, and largely still is, reserved for a very few while the very many follow. The language of leadership reflects and supports this division between leader and follower, and neither the definition nor the language of leadership is sufficient for the world today.

After the Great Depression of the 1930s in the United States and the post-World War II era when people returned to work, loyal followership often guaranteed lifelong employment and ensured that one could care for and feed one’s family (and, upon retirement, get a watch as a token of appreciation). Employers could almost guarantee that subordinates would do whatever was necessary to earn their pay and small rewards. The negative connotation of the word “follower” was far less painful to swallow than the inability to care for oneself or one’s family. Even as the informal and unwritten employment contracts began to erode and change in the latter part of the twentieth century, only to be rendered completely obsolete in the twenty-first century, there were many instances where employees felt compelled to follow blindly—even in situations of blatant abuse and illegal behavior. The economic conditions of the time helped support the divide and distinctions between leaders and followers. The landscape has changed quite a bit since the 1930s, but the language we use remains a remnant of a bygone past. Our responses to and the visceral images created by that language linger. Instead of reinforcing age-old divisions, we need a mindset and language of leadership that maintains equilibrium between leading and following—a conception of leadership that is agile and stateless in its composition. Like the U.S. constitution guides and influences the nation’s trajectory without stifling the rights and freedoms of its populace, organizations’ designs need to facilitate leading and following on an equal platform. Neither leaders nor followers can achieve success without the other, and both can render an organization non-competitive or cause it to underachieve its mission.

Leadership and the Tech Revolution

The rapid advancement of technology and the proliferation of mobile and other network-attached devices have been the catalyst and tipping point for all types of changes in how we consume media, organize data, and communicate with each other. The medium and the messages are shifting. Conversely, our views of leadership and organizational life have been slow to change. These fundamental shifts in technology and media consumption have blurred the boundaries of communication within organizations, which has in turn blurred the distinction between leaders and followers and also the media and messages they use to communicate. Traditional leadership models and prevailing paradigms based on these roles are no longer suited for the world we live in today. A digital revolution is driving complexity and pace. It presents enormous challenge and opportunity. There are new computational tools and voluminous data of all types.

One of the most profound shifts has been an erosion of individual power and authority, with an unearthing of collective power enabled through social media. Historically, power and authority have been granted to or taken by a few and reinforced through organizational hierarchy and structure. Today, informal, social networks like Twitter and Facebook are usurping the power of some formal, hierarchical networks. We need to challenge ourselves and ask the question, What is the rationale for maintaining the outmoded and cumbersome organizational layers and vertical hierarchies? Why haven’t we embraced Fritz Capra’s notion that all learning systems are coordinated by network? We have been discussing the notion of the organization as a social system for quite some time.

While the focus on informal networks is generally discussed in terms of social networks and social relationships—not related to power and authority within networks—each of these shifts challenges the notion of command-and-control leadership and the clearly delineated roles of leader and follower. In the case of the Arab Spring, informal networks allowed individuals to organize more efficiently. The power of subordinates and followers was significantly elevated, and traditional, hierarchical leadership was overthrown in a very concrete way.

Technology has also disrupted structural boundaries within organizations. Like an earthquake fault line that releases energy associated with rapid movement and structural shifting, there is a leadership fault line that has fractured and resulted in discontinuity and a permanent fracture in our traditional leadership formations. The organization is flattened, matrixed, and decentralized as it incorporates tools and emerging technologies into many areas of operation (e.g., enterprise systems, social media for customers and potential employees, etc.). The structural boundaries within organizations have been permanently altered as a result of technological eruptions and explosions and to accommodate some of the shifts, leaders and followers move into these new forms of organizational structure.

Too often, organizations see technological advances as, primarily, the Information Technology department’s responsibility. External forces, customer demands, or security concerns often drive how an organization responds to shifts in landscape, be they technological or otherwise. Organizations rarely integrate internal organizational changes in advance of a specific cause-and-effect event. This lack of planning places an organization in a perpetual cycle of reactionary change and, frequently, behind the curve. Rather than temper or hedge the effect of technology on an organization’s infrastructure, the desired action should be to embrace new developments and leverage them to their fullest potential.

The shift to power of the masses within organizations is unleashing the grip of command-and-control leadership. More specifically, command-and-control leadership is losing its grip on the organizational clutch. Where hierarchy and traditional organizational structures either intentionally or unintentionally acted as a barrier to equality, new technological advances erase those barriers. Even when leaders within traditional models make attempts to treat everyone as an equal and genuinely see the value of doing so, the traditional organizational structures and lexicon stand as impermeable, and often invisible, barriers. Leading in the twenty-first century requires a new structure and design that is more suited to the realities of today. This is a journey that many organizations have begun, and they are taking steps forward.

Individuality and Equality

In recent years, there has been a shift in the balance between organizational leadership and individuality evidenced by the disparity between pay among senior leaders and pay for the average worker. The justification for the increase in CEO compensation and the huge severance packages for senior executives who leave underperforming organizations are reflections of the focus on the value of the individual.

Since the founding of the United States, the balance between individuality and equality has, over time, shifted toward one pole or the other. Where power was once concentrated in the hands of few at the top of traditional hierarchies, the revolutions in technology have abruptly swung the pendulum back toward equality of the masses. The influence of power and authority has diminished.

Today, new books have surfaced that discuss the rise of the power of followers, the need for more empowerment, or how to make leaders act like followers and followers act like leaders. There have been calls to de-emphasize command-and-control leadership in favor of a more matrixed or hybrid organization structure. In spite of all the adjustments—command-and-control tweaks and redesign, ultimately—the language and message is still rooted in a model dominated by traditional hierarchy.

What Is Peer-to-Peer Computing Technology and How Is It Related to Leadership?

Today, computer technology is no longer just a tool, but a social and structural phenomenon that makes information readily accessible and more transparent. In an environment where communication comes in real time and from closer to the source (if not the source itself), anyone can take the lead. In its classic sense, peer-to-peer (P2P) computing is network architecture for data sharing. Its use began more than thirty years ago and moved onto the center stage of computing with the introduction of distributed music file sharing at the turn of the twenty-first century. For our purposes, peer-to-peer is a type of architecture that influences the transfer of information, social exchange, and discourse.

The P2P architecture is unique in that its processes are built using dynamic and changing structures that adapt themselves as needed. Where older, client-server systems required information to be centralized and then distributed from that center, the dynamic structures within P2P comprise a network of peer nodes (computers, phones, and other devices) used for communication and collaboration. Information is decentralized, and all nodes can send and receive information within a P2P network. The interaction or exchange between peer nodes is a relational dynamic that reflects an egalitarian network. All nodes within a P2P network are equal and function as equally privileged participants in the larger whole—a concept known as equipotency.

Equipotency is based on an operational premise that the P2P network does not know where a needed resource or asset will be located, and that any node may be capable of being a resource to any other node in that network. The architectural structure is designed so that every available node can be ready to fulfill a need as it arises. In their dual roles, all peer nodes are both suppliers and consumers of resources (assets). Each node supplies or shares assets and each node consumes resources based on need.

Images

Figure 1: Peer to peer IT architecture

In traditional, client-server models, formal rules dictate the role of client and the role of server—information flows from the centralized server out to the client. The P2P architecture is a departure from the traditional client-server model in that there are no formal rules or advance decisions made to determine whom the participatory members are or how they must relate to each other. All rules are generated from within, and there is no central coordinator or dedicated master server.

The P2P model can be used to reframe the concept of organizational leadership and organizational architecture. It enables us to take a fresh new look at the authoritarian and centralized notions of current organizational leadership approaches. While traditional hierarchies place emphasis on a certain chain of command, P2P architecture places emphasis on the organizing and indexing of data (both archival, real-time inputs), so that nodes in the organization act as both servers and clients (senders and receivers) of the data. In this model, the network itself becomes the leader as it constantly computes raw data and turns it into actionable information.

In a P2P organization, layers are flattened, and spans are spherical. Each node is interdependent on the next, making each node responsible and accountable to the whole and allowing the question of what should be done to supersede the question of who is in charge. Cooperation and collaboration among and between equals to achieve common tasks in pursuit of a common good then becomes far more important than an individual’s traditional status as a “leader” or “follower.”

Images

Figure 2: Client server model

The Difference between a New Theory and a Paradigm Shift

Traditional organizational structures are based on mechanical models of organizations from the Frederick Taylor days of industrial management and leadership. As late as the 1960s, the literature surrounding organizational structure described it using mechanical language—cogs on a wheel. While the mechanical command-and-control leadership models are still alive and thriving, technology has forced us to confront a new reality—organization structures cannot be understood in purely mechanical terms. There is a natural order to the flow and structure within an organization that now calls for correction and a fundamental shift in the understanding of leadership. It is a shift to a model where knowledge and intelligence is distributed throughout the organization from the periphery of the system to the center of the system—a shift that allows us to look at a more integrative model between individuals, work units, and the organization. Rather than seeing each as separate, mechanical entities or organizational silos, the shift to P2P allows us to see combinations of natural, organizing entities.

Those of us who practice or teach leadership have lulled ourselves into a false sense of security with the proliferation of new theories and new books on leadership, but these theories are largely remiss in detailing the fundamental change in landscape sculpted by the rise of informal networks. This failure to see the P2P future threatens to push organizations who embrace traditional leadership structures into a reactionary corner rather than a position of being able to leverage the powers of this new, natural order.

As early as 1935, Kurt Lewin wrote of the importance of the interactions between individuals and their environment.1 More recently, Ira Chaleff spoke of the shift in the balance of power between leaders and followers and how leaders can no longer ignore the influence of internal and external stakeholders.2 There is now recognition that broader context and all constituents are critical—not just customers, employees, and shareholders; not just founders and donors.

Informal networks have become as powerful as traditional hierarchies—and in some cases, more powerful. Organizations have responded in a variety of ways that range from putting constraints on employees’ use of services like Facebook and Twitter to doing nothing at all. In attempts to bring parity between leaders and followers, organizations are beginning to recognize this as a futile effort given the current structure of organizations and many governments, but few if any have tried to harness the power of peer-to-peer architecture in the very structure of their organizations.

In most organizations, relationships and information flow are organized in some form of hierarchical structure, but this doesn’t need to be the only model. From popular movements in Tunisia and Egypt to Occupy Wall Street (OWS), the influence of an integrated network of equally privileged participants sharing information is producing a radical paradigm shift in the way we connect and relate to one another. People in social networks act much like “peer nodes” in P2P network architecture. The world no longer must rely on traditional hierarchical order to transmit or receive information.

Summary

When Canadian geese migrate, they fly in a V-formation to move quickly and fly longer than they could as individuals. Geese use synergy—the law of nature that recognizes that working together creates a greater result than could be achieved alone. The pendulum has swung such that leadership now requires synergy and an adjustment that better suits the realities of the time. The rationale for the importance of both leading and following is that data moves too quickly. No one has the capacity to know everything they need to know or to convert all the data to information needed to be successful in the twenty-first century.

What we have is not working. The disparity between principle and established practice is transparent to the masses. Elaborate leadership development programs, coaching initiatives, a proliferation of leadership books and “best practice” guidance, and reinforcement from other organizations that only expand on current practice are no longer viable solutions or sufficient for building effective leadership. Barbara Kellerman, a Harvard professor, leadership expert, and author of The End of Leadership3 has questioned whether the leadership industry—with its myriad of books, articles and training—actually does what it claims to do: that is, grow leaders. She also questions whether leadership can be taught at all. Its demands have certainly shifted. Few organizations have adjusted or adapted to the new reality, and still fewer see the integral connection between organizational leadership and organization design. Informal networks like Facebook and Twitter are becoming more powerful than many organizational structures, and current leadership approaches and organization designs are not aligned to the new reality. To the contrary, we have seen more transparency to failed leadership and more calls for a new approach.

Leadership in today’s world requires insight from more than one individual. We must rely constantly on others’ insight even when we are in a position of authority. In the coming chapters, we’ll look at the power inherent in P2P architecture for organizational design, organizational structure, and leadership.

Practical Application

Jot down all the things that you did this week that you would not (or could not) have done five years ago.

Key Points

images The current leadership lexicon is insufficient for today’s world.

images The fundamental shifts in technology and media consumption have blurred the boundaries and eroded power and authority within organizations.

images The peer-to-peer (P2P) IT architecture model can be used to reframe the concept of organizational leadership and organizational architecture and design.

images The concepts of the node, node community, equipotency, and relational dynamics will frame a new concept of leadership more suited for the twenty-first century.

images The world no longer has to rely on traditional hierarchy to transmit information.

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Endorsements

"This will be an important and very timely addition to the leadership literature. Peer-to-peer leadership is the main issue of the future."

-Edgar H. Schein, Professor Emeritus, MIT, and author of Humble Inquiry


"A thought-provoking approach to leadership and organizational design for our twenty-first-century, hyper-digitally-connected world."

- Mary Whaley, Booklist

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