Decentralising leadership: from monolithic to modular and polycentric

Why talk about leadership?

Let's bring it back to the people. If you've ever been in an executive position, been an influential DAO member, or founded a new organisation, you'll likely viscerally know the weight of responsibility. There can be so much work, so much uncertainty and yet such a pressing need to make big, complex decisions, often with long-lasting consequences. It's exhilarating, but it's also exhausting if not downright nerve-wracking. Conversely, being in a disempowered position can quickly become frustrating, if not depressing. And the difference is often touted to be: leadership.

We're told that there's a mindset and a set of skills that leaders have, that if we master those, we can make things right. Countless researchers have followed this path, compiling theories and models. Meanwhile, the pressure on 'leaders' has continued to grow to master and exhibit these traits - leaders are meant to be visionaries, strategists, motivators, servants, coaches… the list goes on.

With all the work happening on leadership, and all these expectations, why should we here, talk about leadership?

First, with Web3 we can rethink this topic and many others from the ground up, learning from the past but primarily building on first principles rather than stale thinking. And second, because I fear we're missing a trick here, and continuing down this path is harmful and unsustainable.

What follows is an attempt to bring a new perspective on an old debate, a critique inspired by the excellent work many have done and continue to do in this field.


Below, I will present yet another leadership model, but the idea is not to "create a new standard to replace all previous standards". Instead, the model below illustrates an underlying principle that I consider both more practical and more disruptive: that we can move away from a monolithic idea of leadership to a modular, polycentric one.

In essence, the model proposed here moves away from the monolithic conception of leadership that has attempted to:

  • Qualify and quantify all the leadership behaviours, traits, roles, etc. into what's become a sprawling list of leadership attributes,
  • and suggest (often as an implicit assumption but occasionally explicitly too) that we need  "jacks of all trades" leaders.

Instead, this new(ish) model of polycentric, modular leadership suggests that:

  • There are different domains and archetypes of leadership,
  • each individual can master one or a few of them (but is unlikely to excel in all),
  • and a healthy organisation relies on collaboration that results in having capacity in each of the domains and archetypes.

Importantly, modular, polycentric leadership is different from "shared, distributed, collective leadership" [1], based on three principles:

  • Some fluidity on who takes leadership is advantageous, but entirely relying on fluidity is likely to lead to 'things falling through the cracks',
  • we can take many fundamental functions that have accumulated under "leadership" and bring them back to the domain of regular work, thus reducing the burden on leaders,
  • And leadership and processes/roles can be used almost interchangeably: the same organisational function can be achieved (primarily although not entirely) by either a "leader" emerging when needed or by a preemptive group process or role.

Curious? Let's dig in.

How did we get here?

It's important to note that most leadership research was conducted in environments where the majority of people are disempowered: top-down, command-and-control organisations, where most members have little or no ownership and can only propose changes within the limited domain of their given role.

In these environments, for an employee to step out of their role and, against the odds, propose changes, mobilise others, and not suffer negative consequences is more the exception than the norm. In traditional organisations, it's the boss who's expected to lead.

Some bosses are great, others not so much, and where organisations have succeeded, researchers have followed.

Primarily, researchers, consultants and practitioners alike have focused on the leader (the most visible part of the organisation), in what J.R Hackman, a professor at Harvard University who spent over 3 decares studying teams, called "The Leadership Attribution Error" - a phenomenon where success or failure is disproportionately attributed to the boss.

At some point, researchers also compared organisations with social movements where influential figures emerge from humble beginnings. And their natural conclusion was to start looking for two things:

  • The qualities that non-boss influential figures had differentiated them from other people.
  • The environmental factors that enabled these figures to emerge.

Most leadership theories can be traced to one of the three approaches mentioned above (looking at bosses in command-and-control organisations, the qualities of known figures in social movements, and environmental factors that enabled them to emerge).

As the research has progressed, the number of findings on how to be a good boss, what enables one to become an influential figure, and how to create conditions for influential figures to emerge has accumulated.

In tandem, as innovation became a defining success factor for organisations, and the 'war for talent' intensified, the bar for an organisation to succeed went up, consequently, the expectations of bosses and managers, have increased.

Earlier lists of expectations included providing direction, making changes, and rallying others to the cause (note the parallels with military leaders or other command-and-control leaders). More recently, the team's wellbeing was added, stimulating their minds and challenging them to go above and beyond, bringing information and resources from across, clarifying responsibilities, focusing on outcomes, taking risks, facilitating learning, creating psychological safety, giving and receiving feedback, the list goes on. We face leadership inflation.

Hidden within these models and expectations is still the notion that these tasks, activities, and outcomes are not regular work. Instead, they're part of that extra, an almost intangible, romanticised quality that so many are trying to describe and cultivate.

And meanwhile, in contrast to the environment of top-down, command-and-control organisations, we've seen the growth of alternative movements: cooperatives, self-managed organisations, networked organisations and DAOs.

These organisations operate from an opposite paradigm to traditional command-and-control. Instead of relying on a leader to function, they aim to leverage the collective: collective ownership, collective responsibility, and collective governance.

Although some of these other environments have existed for a while they have paled in number compared to traditional organisations, and within scholarly circles, the influence of the mainstream research has dominated. But, perhaps, we could be reaching a tipping point. Perhaps all the qualities that we've accumulated under "leadership" have become too numerous for a single person to master, and the pace of the world too fast for any single boss or leader to keep on top. Our organisational and leadership paradigm can't keep up.

Nor does it need to. When a construct becomes monolithic and crumbles under its own weight, it's time to review its purpose, refactor and modularise.

And perhaps we've started to put too many things inside a concept that makes essential functions the exception, instead of the norm. So let's go back to the basics; what do we actually need to achieve? And can we conceive this from the perspective of agents who choose to organise, and who can collaborate and divide tasks in more ways than the usual command-and-control?

Essential functions for viability

Starting from the basics, we can say that Organisations exist to serve the need of their stakeholders. After all, if we were able to satisfy our needs in isolation, we wouldn't go through the trouble of organising. And without satisfying the needs of the other stakeholders (or without being their best bet at doing so), they would disengage and go elsewhere.

So we need to organise, and that can mean a series of things; here again, models abound. I won't attempt to select 'a single model to explain it all', but I'll make an educated guess and choose one that's proven useful a handful of times. We'll then continue our exercise to show this line of inquiry can lead us to a very different conception of leadership with this new model. Hopefully, a more useful one.

For the model, I'm borrowing mostly from Beer's conception of the Viable System Model which describes 5 essential functions to make a system viable (i.e. a system that can adapt to a changing or even adversarial environment and thrive). I'm also adding elements of the research on Toxic Handlers by Peter Frost and Sandra Robinson and also nudges to multiple theories of leadership. Ultimately, the bubbles in the model can be changed and reshuffled. The essential is the principle of multiple, distinct but interdépendant, and parallel functions that are all essential for a team to remain viable.

Six Key Interactions (SKIs) for viability:

Below are six essential functions that happen between people, hence called Interactions. They're represented by the questions they seek to address.

  1. Identity: What brings us together? Who do we exist to serve, and what are their needs?
  2. Future:  How will we evolve to meet those needs, given how our environment evolves?
  3. Change:  How do we move from here to that future? How do we change and evolve, creating synergy between the parts?
  4. Coordination:  How do we harmonise our work?
  5. Operations:  What are we doing every day to deliver value to our stakeholders?
  6. Support*:  How do we make it possible for every person to give their best, sustainably?

*Note for theory geeks: those of you familiar with the VSM will remark that Support could fall within what Beer called System 2. In the SKI model Support has been given it's own space to nudge towards it (as it's rather systematically overlooked across organisations) and also to emphasise the importance of caring for the nested systems despite (or especially in) an environment that favours workers partaking in multiple organisations. Ultimately it's a design choice for a specific context so feel free to adapt as needed.

Polycentric, Modular Leadership

As we look at these organisational functions, away from hierarchical notions of industrial-era organisations, we can envision an effective organisation with parallel functions: each essential for its survival, each fulfilling a different role. And animating these functions, we have people. Plural.

If a single individual has to oversee all essential functions, they are likely to collapse under the pressure or, as it happens most frequently, forget about one or a few. Until something breaks. Many organisations go along like that, from crisis to crisis. Relying on a few individuals to show heroic leadership, a few to carry the world on their shoulders. Other organisations try to go the opposite extreme, decentralising governance and responsibility, trying to empower everyone to lead in everything (many DAOs are following this path) and often encounter that many gaps are left open, and many people find the tasks too daunting to step up, or worst still, an oligarchy takes over thanks to the tyranny of structurelessness. So what if we slice our pie differently?

Across time and cultures, a fundamental principle keeps manifesting itself: different organisational functions require different personalities to animate them. For example, in ancestral tribes, we find a shaman/elder and a warrior chief. Both weild power, both show leadership, but of a different kind.

In mediaeval Europe, we distinguished between the pope and the emperor, between the bishop and the king. More recently we have cemented modern democracies across a division of powers, and in Web2 startup culture a meme of the dream team has been a triad with "a hacker, a hipster, and a hustler". Yet, in the study of leadership, we seemed to have lost this polycentrism in favour of a monolithic, singular conception.

So let's explore some alternatives.

Borrowing from our SKI framework above, every one of the 6 functions has a vibe, a personality of its own. And unsurprisingly for a framework that highlights the essential functions of an organisation, the functions also overlap with popular traits in leadership theories (e.g. enabling change, supporting others, creating meaning, etc). Using it as a heuristic ("all models are wrong, some are useful") we arrive at the following model.

6 Leadership Archetypes

  • Philosopher / Elder / Source -> Identity
  • Visionary / inspiring leader -> Vision
  • Strategist / Change Agent -> Change
  • Coordinator / Orchestrator -> Coordination
  • Craftsman / Aritst -> Operations
  • Carer / Coach -> Support

Consequences of polycentric, modular Leadership

As you might have noticed reading through the list, certain people feel more energised, attracted to, and embody certain archetypes more than others.

Although the archetypes we embody are the result of both nature and nurture, we can certainly improve in each of them with enough work. However, if we try to lead in all, we risk having our attention spread too thin.

Equally some polarities exist. It's hard to be a good Strategist and a Carer at the same time. Or a Philosopher and a Crafstman. And stereotypically, Visionaries are poor Coordinators. Those who can bridge these polarities do exist, so be careful to not take stereotypes beyond their usefulness.

The good news is that collaboration can help us focus on our strengths rather than our weaknesses, sleep better at night and better serve others.

The bad news is that those proficient in a specific archetype tend to value it more and are more likely to value people who embody the same archetype. Equally, communities and organisations tend to form around similar archetypes. The consequence is that certain archetypes are often systematically underappreciated in each community and organisation, and often unconsciously so.

Also, it's important to note that the archetypes tend to defy professional clusters and are situation-dependant. I've seen finance leaders who were primarily Carers. And HR leaders whose primary archetype was the Strategist and the least developed one that of the Carer. And I've also been in situations where, given the strengths and weaknesses of my colleagues, I tended to compensate and embody more frequently archetypes away from my default set. That experience made me rather miserable and eventually resulted in me deciding to leave a company I had co-founded and rescind my shares. Hindsight…

The lesson is that in some situations, we are unlikely to be the right person for the job. But rather than thinking less of ourselves (or others), we can try to reposition and look for more convenient situations or find complementary profiles to support us. That's the essence of moving from a model of singular leadership to one with many leaders, a polycentric one.

By @_Daniel_Ospina

More of this thinking happening in RnDAO

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