• Phil Cole

The Leaderless Group


Listen to this in Episode 38 of Short Takes here or on your favorite podcast app.


Put this into practice with the SEEING EXERCISE Observing the Leaderless Group. The observation that this exercise teaches should become a constant practice in our leadership, as it allows us to assess the group's natural performance of the functions and determine where our limited time and energy is best spent on interventions.


One of the most interesting thought experiments we do as part of the functional approach to leadership is called the leaderless group. The leaderless group is one that does not have a boss, supervisor, or designated leader. This is unusual, but they do exist; they arise any time a group of people get together to accomplish something without formal authority. There is no one person acting on the functions.


Functional leadership is based on asking, “what does the group need?” rather than, “What does a leader do?” The leaderless group illustrates this by demonstrating the process of work when carried out by the functions without intervention by an authority.


A great example is a group of friends planning a party. The members have a single goal – a great party -- but no formal leader. As a result, the functions of leadership are distributed among the members of the group. At times some people perform aspects of one function, others another function. Responsibility is handed off to each member as the group performs work. By necessity, if the goal of a successful party is reached, then the functions must have been performed by the group. These groups succeed to the degree that the functions are distributed and performed.


For vision, the group writes the five factors of the story of vision and then creates a standard of excellence and community from that outcome. The group creates the relationships that make individual tasks combine to produce the outcome and experiments to the degree necessary to adjust performance of the other two functions to produce a successful outcome.


For example, the group might decide that having awesome decorations is important – and they understand what that means in physical terms (the change). They assign one member to purchase the decorations through interchanges. When the member is unable to get the right colors of balloons and table cloths, he or she has to decide how to proceed: reaching out to the group to re-evaluate the plan, or making a spot decision to change the color scheme. The results of this decision affect the party’s success, of course, and the connections between the members. A good decision might produce trust and excitement, while a bad decision might produce frustration at wasted time and money.


The group decides these processes without a leader. But they still happen. Without leadership, there is the risk that these functions are directed towards individual – rather than group – success. One party planner might want everything to be done a certain way or to avoid contributing effort, and pressure the other members to allow this through the functions. This likely produces a less successful outcome – a less awesome party.


This is the beauty of the functions, and why our understanding and ability to act on the functions makes us effective leaders. When we as leaders – with formal authority or not – see the opportunities to act on the functions, we have innumerable places to be effective. Our challenge is to build a leadership practice that helps us see where we should make a change in the group’s processes.


If we do this well enough, we work ourselves out of jobs. The momentum we create through intervention on the functions allows the group to perform their work while we stand by and observe. This is success as a leader.


Here’s a SEEING EXERCISE for this idea.


SEEING EXERCISE: Observing a Leaderless Group


Take an hour in the middle of a busy (but not critical) shift. Pick a time when you do not have a specific role, for example when the regular managers are in place. Stand back and watch how the members of the group interact to produce a common output.

  1. When do you see each of the functions in action?

  2. Where are the members making meaning and planning?

  3. How do members exchange elements and experience emotion reactions?

  4. How do members respond to changes and adjust their approaches? How do they impact those around them?

  5. Which of these aspects work? When do you see the group’s output align with your vision?

  6. Which aspects do not work? When do members struggle to perform tasks, and to combine their tasks? Where does conflict occur?

  7. What interactions stop the members from completing and combining their tasks? How can these interactions be changed to have productive results?


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