Distributed, remote, and even hybrid work have one similar quality — they expose cracks in the system that could be covered over in face-to-face settings. They make dysfunctional workplaces transparently obvious. Distributed work, like online teaching, has to be much more explicit. Both require excellent communication skills, especially writing, because the work becomes more asynchronous. In a global economy, work is distributed across both space and time.
Those in leadership positions — servant leaders — have to manage networked contributors working in environments that are transparent, diverse, and open. Anything less is sub-optimal. They need the skills developed by leading multiple players in online role-play games — creating highly motivated and remote collectives to battle elves or aliens or build civilisations. These skills are not taught in business schools and few senior managers or executives have them today.
The job of those in positions of leadership (you are not a leader if people don’t willingly follow you) is to help make their networks, communities, and teams smarter and more resilient. Why networks and communities as well as teams? We all work in a connected world. Making our network smarter helps us. For example, living in countries with high voluntary vaccination rates is good for everyone. Living in countries with active and engaged voters makes for a better democracy and can counter demagogues and populist movements. Companies that nourish their external networks and physical communities are more resilient to crises. Good leaders know this and act accordingly — helping make the network smarter.
The essence of connected leadership is helping your networks, communities, and teams make better decisions. It is not telling people what to do, or managing how they get things done, especially where more work is unique and non-routine. Those doing the work are often the only ones who really understand the context, while those directing the work may have obsolete mental models on how it is done.
John Wenger, in Why you can’t empower someone, suggested several years ago that people in positions of power should focus on “getting out of the way behaviours”. These activities are even more pertinent in a distributed workplace.
- Monitoring boundaries — clarifying limits of authority and accountability so that people know what they are responsible for and what they are not.
- Monitoring and stewarding team dynamics — shining a light on relationships and networks and encouraging their connection and interaction.
- Showing trust and belief — behaving in ways that let people know you trust them to get on with it.
- Being available — for advice, guidance, information, as a sounding board.
- Communicating respectfully — communication should be open and mutual.
- Coaching people to learn from mistakes — when someone makes a mistake, an enabling manager will work with the person to work out what went wrong, why it went wrong and ensure that they have the capability and awareness to prevent a repeat.
- Encouraging problem-solving — letting people bring their creativity to work.