The Future of Leadership is Not About You by Jamie Notter

I think the future of leadership is ultimately about making a significant shift in the way we think and talk about the idea of leadership itself. So I am sorry to have to be the one to break the news to you, but leadership, it turns out, is not about you.

I don’t mean to imply you are unimportant—quite the opposite—real leadership requires all of us to up our game these days. Every one of us. But leadership itself, despite decades of scholarship and research suggesting otherwise, is not about individuals, so in that sense it’s not about you.

Leadership is not about you, because leadership is a system capacity.

I’m stealing this definition from Peter Senge, systems-thinking expert and author of the Fifth Discipline. He said that leadership is “the capacity within the human community to shape its future.” Systems that possess leadership (as a system-wide capacity, rather than only as superior individuals at the helm) are better able to shape their own future. They end up better off, more successful. Systems that lack leadership, end up bouncing around in many different directions and having the future “happen to them.” Leadership is the system’s capacity to shape its future.

So the future of leadership requires some new thinking. Sure, we still need to develop the skills of individuals (and you can call them “leadership” skills if you like), but we can’t stop there.

We need to take a hard look at our organizational capacities when it comes to shaping our future.

Look at organizational culture, for instance. We’re stuck with organizations that are way too centralized and opaque for today’s world. The people in our organizations who are closest to the problems are RARELY the ones who have the information or the authority they need to actually solve the problems. That’s bad. That weakens our capacity to shape the future. We need to figure out how to create cultures that embrace decentralization and value transparency if we want to strengthen our leadership capacity.

The same goes for our organizational processes and structure. Do your processes truly enable broad collaboration, within and across dividing lines? Do they support your people in telling the truth?

Do you have processes in place that actually support people in experimenting more and taking risks? Traditional organizations don’t, and that is at the heart of our leadership crisis right now.

In our book, Humanize, Maddie Grant and I argue that at the heart of these problems lies an over-reliance on “machine thinking.” As the future of leadership requires a shift towards building system capacity, it will also require re-creating our organizations based on more human principles, like being open and trustworthy (think decentralized and transparent at the culture level), or generative and courageous (think collaboration and experimentation at the process level).

The future of leadership means getting back in touch with what it means to be human, and re-orienting our organizations to tap into that great power.

And yes, I admit, YOU will play a big role in that. And you may need to develop some of those leadership skills we have been talking about for the last few decades. But it won’t stop there, and it’s not about you marching up the corporate ladder to that “leadership” position where you get to be in control. We all need to start building leadership capacity in all corners of our systems and in a variety of ways. Then we can start collectively shaping our future.

A bit about Jamie

I am a Vice President at Management Solutions Plus Inc., in Rockville, Maryland, where I lead MSP’s consulting division. Clients call on me to help them solve tough problems, build internal capacity, and amplify leadership. I also speak extensively for corporations and associations. Jamie is the co-author of Humanize: How People-centric Organizations Succeed in a Social World.


Photo courtesy of Dan Jones

Jamie Notter

Jamie is a founding partner at WorkXO where he helps leaders create stronger cultures and upgrade their workplaces, based on a deeper understanding of their organizational genetic code. He brings 25 years of experience in conflict resolution, generational differences, leadership, and culture change to the consulting firm he started with Maddie Grant and Charlie Judy in 2016. Author of two books (When Millennials Take Over, and Humanize), Jamie has a Master’s in conflict resolution from George Mason and a certificate in OD from Georgetown, where he serves as adjunct faculty.

  • Love this kind of discussion. I’m involved in the work of developing the next generation of leaders. While “leadership” skills will always be important, the way we use and implement them is evolving and changing. I am finding that my students are SO OPEN to the types of shifts you talk about in this post. They want to humanize the organization. They want to make it more organic and less top-down. They seem to be just fine with sharing…authority and responsibility…as long as they feel like their work is meaningful.

  • This is an important re-framing of the leadership issue. The leader as ‘hero’ is a thing of the past.

    I often cite the line, ‘In the absence of a clear plan, leadership matters’ I will enjoy restating it in future as, ‘…leadership throughout the organization matters’

  • I’d amend that to “the future of leadership is not just about you.” All the changes around us that enable (and demand!) more transparency and delegation of authority are in addition to individual leadership rather than a replacement of it. Sure, how you lead in that system is different but it doesn’t mean you can simply give up all authority and then wait for the awesome to happen.

    The individual act of leadership is still very relevant. It’s simply not enough any longer.

  • I absolutely agree! Leadership needs to be spread throughout the organization at all levels. It cannot be top heavy! Giving those closest to the matter the authority to make change that will positively effect the organization. I saw this done best while working for Apple, Inc.

  • Collective leadership is indeed a key trend with collaborative skills emerging. Not sure the B schools are keeping pace. Leaders are made in the line of fire and orgs will increasingly need to promote their social media rockstars or they will promote their own brand and leave. This can be quite costly for orgs. Some will do better than others, and those will attract and retain talent and generate high performance. Thx for the discussion.

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  • sergeitoom

    The Future of Leadership . – Transformation of Thought Leader give New Understanding & Analytical Wisdom .

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