We've heard of organic and mechanistic organizations, but organic leadership? What's the main difference between the two types of organization? In mechanistic organizations, direction can be deliberately decided and planned.

With organic leadership, direction evolves or emerges through trial and error learning. Direction is discovered rather than decided in an organic organization. What's not recognized is that leadership itself is organic in organic organizations.

Organic leadership is the spontaneous action of challenging what someone else is saying and advocating a different idea or direction. It's also the entrepreneurial seizing of opportunities. Hence organic leadership emerges in the heat of battle - often at the front lines with employees closest to the market and the development of new products.

Why is this important? Because everyone already accepts that organizations wanting to be more innovative need to become more organic and less mechanistic, but they perversely still want to label senior executives as leaders rather than recognize that leadership emerges at the front lines. By seeing this form of leadership as organic, we create a strong and clear link between this type of leadership and organic organizations.

One recent article calls executives in organic organizations ''paradoxical leaders'' because they ''lead by not leading'', meaning that they facilitate innovation in others rather than indicate new directions themselves. This is nonsense - either they lead or they don't. It's a bizarre attempt to continue calling executives leaders even while recognizing that their new role is to facilitate rather than lead! See primitive leadership for hints on why it is so hard to stop seeing executives as leaders.

See also thought leadership which is a prime example of organic leadership because it can emerge during a brainstorming session in a totally unplanned, spontaneous and unexpected way. This is the essence of what it means to be organic. It can also emerge in trial and error experimentation or discussions with a customer.

Leadership as Evolution

  • All groups contain opposing forces: - adapt and maintain.
  • Maintenance fosters group cohesion, efficiency and consistency.
  • Adaptation disrupts group stability but is driven by changing circumstances.
  • Adaptation occurs, rather than extinction, only if there is variation.
  • Variation = people doing different things, disturbing the status quo.
  • Some variation is seen as deviance, some as leadership
  • Another way of looking at these opposing forces: - individuals or groups - which comes first or is more important? Answer: neither, but the two are always in dynamic tension.
  • Leadership is variation that leads the group to change direction.
  • Intense competition between groups and constant variation create successful groups.
  • When competition is fierce, evolution speeds up - if there is sufficient variation.
  • Management = maintenance - managers get things done efficiently and coordinate the efforts of others - change is avoided in the interest of efficiency.
  • Leadership is a force for change - the engine of evolution.
  • Leaders are deviants whose new ideas increase a group's chance of success.
  • The person formally in charge of a group may not be the only source of variation.
  • Groups that allow only one leader could reduce the amount of variation - new ideas.


Two factors motivate those who want to lead: -

  1. The drive to differentiate or individuate yourself by doing something different or unique - this is the real basis of leadership.
  2. The desire for power over others - to make yourself the sole source of variation.
  • Those in power suppress variation in order to retain their hold on power.
  • They may not do so consciously in modern organizations, but employees abdicate their own leadership responsibility by deferring to those in charge.
  • Some have a strong drive to acquire power, others have an equally strong need to be protected by someone powerful.
  • This collusion between leaders and followers creates expectations of leaders that often cannot be met in complex, fast changing environments.
  • This is why traditional leadership can be counterproductive today.

What to do about it

  • It is not enough for those in charge to foster leadership throughout the organization.
  • All employees also need to take more responsibility to demonstrate leadership and be less reliant on formally appointed leaders.

Where Leadership is Headed

  • Attaining power over others was once a mere matter of physical strength.
  • Then we created institutionalized authority.
  • For centuries we have been moving from power based on formal authority to the power of knowledge
  • The ability to innovate or create/apply new knowledge is not the monopoly of people at the top of organizations - it occurs at all levels and especially at the front line.
  • This is a new form of leadership that, as yet, is not widely acknowledged or fostered.

Related articles include: Bottom-up Leadership and Leadership Defined, which addresses the question "What is leadership?"