The Flat Leadership Revolution

Lori Hanau October 4, 2015

We once believed the earth to be flat. The moment we discovered it wasn’t, the possibilities of our existence and what we could accomplish began to expand exponentially. Of course, the earth was always round, even when we believed it wasn’t. That’s the thing about paradigms. They typify our interpretation of reality, which is not the same as what is really there. When we change our paradigms, we make visible what we couldn’t imagine before.

A paradigm shift is a fundamental change in view of how things work in the world. So what about the way we work in the world? What is clear is that the established way of working isn’t working. According to reports that Gallup has been generating since 2000, two-thirds of employees today feel disengaged and experience a lack of meaning at work, costing the American economy an estimated $450 – $550 billion annually. Over the past fifteen years, these numbers have barely budged. Globally, the percentage of disengagement in the workplace is 87 percent across 142 countries. These figures are sobering enough without even taking into account the cost to our societal and human evolution.

One order of paradigm shift and a strong cup of coffee, please! Like all good paradigms, the way out of the problem comes when we see it with new eyes. Try to see the crisis at work as a call to shift how we relate to leadership. As challenges and opportunities approach whole-earth scale, we must cultivate new muscles for leading together, rooted in our innate abilities to accomplish organizational objectives and collectively impact social change. In the new paradigm, leadership does not look like a corner office or a five-page CV. In the new paradigm, leadership is for everybody. To change the way we work, we have to change the way we lead, and ideas on how to do just that are popping up all over the map under names like participatory leadership, facilitative leadership, systems leadership, collective leadership, collaborative leadership, and shared leadership.

The good news is, change is already afoot. Cooperative business models, crowdsourcing, and the democratization of information are just a few examples of a cultural shift of consciousness from isolated individualism toward collective intelligence and shared power, forcing us to rethink group structures, impact, and the way we lead.

“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” – Arundhati Roy

In the current paradigm, leadership is positional. We relate to our work first and foremost through our roles, our status, and our expertise in order to execute outcomes. This “boss” model of leadership requires those of us at the top to hold the answers, survive a universe of stress, and assume singular control over outcomes and others. Meanwhile, as employees, we feel more disconnected from our livelihood and we relinquish our agency at work. Have you ever shrugged off the chance to make something better at work, thinking, “that’s not my job”? Or told yourself you’d take on that extra task only if you got a raise? I’ve been there, and I’m not proud of it. Regardless of our role or title, showing up only through our roles perpetuates relationships rooted in a competitive growth mentality, separating us, diminishing our drive, and pushing us to hide our truths behind our titles. It compromises our creative and cultural potential.

Frederic Laloux, in his book “Reinventing Organizations,” poses the question, “Could we invent a more powerful, more soulful, more meaningful way to work together if we only changed our belief system?” This inquiry has had a firm hold on me ever since I went to work at my father’s human-centered business in the early ’90s. Led by my father, Ken Hanau, Vermont Container was a soulful organization built on empowerment and dignity. The expectation was that everybody who worked there, from the top of the org chart to the bottom, held a shared responsibility to lead from these values, from the inside out. I never heard him give a speech without reminding us that the essential importance of relationship first – leading with our humanity – equaled a thriving and meaningful business. And we thrived in every way. I sold corrugated boxes for nine years of my life and I jumped out of bed every day, inspired and proud to go to work, as an equal part of a greater whole. As a collective, we knew we were in a rarified ecosystem.

“When we change our paradigms, we make visible what we couldn’t imagine before.”

So how do we arrive here today? How do we open to conscious leadership? The first question we have to ask is, “What parts of ourselves do we leave behind when we step into our roles and identities?” The second question is, “What will happen if we stop leaving these parts behind?” When we step into our work, leading primarily through our roles, we leave out our biggest collective asset: our shared humanity. In any group, relating to each other first through our humanity ignites a creative field of connectivity and soulfulness – our group wisdom – that has no room to surface in our typical mode of operating as fragmented parts of a whole.

I’ve defined “Shared Leadership” as “the practice of bringing out the greatest capacity in everyone by empowering each individual to be responsible for and engaged in the success of the whole.” This is not positional leadership. This is a fundamental shift to lead from our personal and collective agency, in all that we are and all that we do. To lead consciously, we must shift our orientation from relating first through our roles, statuses, and expertise, to relating first through the genius of our humanity and equality, what exists at the core of us.

This re-orientation integrates the qualities of reciprocal relationships into hierarchical settings, building mutual trust, compassion, respect, and generosity. Roles are still necessary to produce outcomes, but how we approach our roles changes fundamentally. And leading from our core supports the innate blossoming of collaboration, because we begin together from the place of our innate equality. The essential aspect of our humanity is bypassed in the current paradigm of leadership.

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” – Lilla Watson, Australian Aboriginal artist, activist, and educator

When we reorient our awareness and lead from this wisdom, we naturally rise together and open toward each other. Leadership is both a product and driver of contemporary culture. As leadership adapts to meet the needs of the times, it simultaneously shapes how we see our problems, our solutions, and ourselves. We are at the beginning of a reorientation or paradigm shift from top-down, positional leadership to more systemic and collaborative ways of leading, generated from the soulful wisdom that our humanity, equality, wholeness, and collective intelligence matter first and foremost. Conscious and human-centered companies, working through shared power, are already leading the way.

Shifting the leadership paradigm requires that we bring our whole selves to work, learning to lead from our humanity first. Think that’s scary? Imagine being told that the earth was round when everybody knew it was flat. It is a scary thing, coming to realize that reality isn’t the same as what we’ve been conditioned to believe. We resist, we ridicule, until we reorient. Let’s be brave together and begin with the way we lead. We aren’t just shifting the paradigm around work and leadership. We are upgrading our humanity.

Lori Hanau is dedicated to supporting shifts in consciousness, communication, and community in the workplace. She founded Global Round Table Leadership, where she works with people and teams to build the personal and shared leadership capacities required to meet the call and needs of our times. She is also faculty in Marlboro’s MBA in Managing for Sustainability. Lori has been supported in shared leadership by Claire Wheeler of Rework for the writing of this article. Visit to learn and share your stories of shared leadership.

Social Entrepreneurship / Stakeholder Capitalism
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