At their best, the units in good trust-based organizations hardly have to be managed, but they do need a multiplicity of leaders. I once teased an English audience by comparing a team of Englishmen to a rowing crew on the river – eight men going backward as fast as they can without talking to each other, steered by the one person who can’t row! I thought it quite witty at the time, but I was corrected after the session by one of the participants, who had once been an Olympic oarsman. “How do you think we could go backward so: fast without communicating, steered by this little fellow in the stern, if we didn’t know each other very well, didn’t have total confidence to do our jobs and a shared commitment – almost a passion – for the same goal! It is the perfect formula for a team.”
I had to admit it – he was right. “But tell me,” I said to him, “who is the manager of this team!” “There isn’t one,” he replied, after thinking about it. “Unless that is what you call our part-time administrator back in the office.” Manager, he was reminding me, is a low-status title in organizations of colleagues.
“Well, then, who is the leader ?
“That depends,” he said. “When we are racing, it is the little chap who is steering, because he is the only one who can see where we are going. But there is also the stroke, who sets the standard for all of us. He is a leader, too, in a way. But off the river, it’s the captain of the crew, who selects us, bonds us together, builds our commitment to our goal and our dedication. Lastly, in training, there is our coach, who is undoubtedly the main influence on our work. So you see,” he concluded, “there isn’t a simple answer to your question.” A rowing crew, I realized, has to be based on trust if it is to have any chance of success. And if any member of that crew does not pull his weight, then he does not deserve the confidence of the others and must be asked to leave. Nor can all the leadership requirements be discharged by one person, no matter how great or how good.
– Charles Handy