Climbing the Corporate Web

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Sally Helgeson wrote The Female Advantage in the 1990s. This was a classic, paradigm-changing book about how women's leadership styles and gifts are changing the face of organizations. Her subsequent work, The Web of Inclusion, continued the conversation, exploring how women leaders prefer to work in flattened, inter-woven organizational structures - literally, webs of relationships. And through these webs of connection, women maximize productivity and innovation.

In The Web of Inclusion, Helgeson describes some of the common leadership practices of the successful women she researched:

"The women I studied built profoundly integrated and organic organizations in which the focus was on nurturing good relationships; in which the niceties of hierarchical rank and distinction played little part; and in which lines of communication were multiple, open, and diffuse. I noted that the women tended to put themselves at the center of their organizations rather than at the top, emphasizing both accessibility and equality, and that they labored constantly to include people in their decision-making. This had the effect of undermining the boundaries so characteristic of mainstream organizations, with their strict job descriptions, categorization of people according to rank, and restrictions on the flow of information."

Helgeson is not the only one who has noticed the tendency of women to work relationally, and to view leadership primarily as influence and empowerment vs. power and authority. Yet, that relational, inclusive model of leadership is certainly not the norm. Leadership books and seminars in business are slowly waking up to fact that the world has gone relational. But many organizations lag behind new theories and training on leadership, and are still functioning with the sole visionary model of the 1980s: the take-charge, no-nonsense CEO who not only sets the course, but micro-manages just how that course is followed. As Margaret Wheatley describes them, these are the "command and control" leaders who solicit little input and, as a result, inspire little passion, and even less real loyalty.

Certainly, there are exceptions. But the top-down, "I-decide-you-follow" approach is still the leadership default in most organizations, especially ministry. Collaborative, relational systems are on the rise, especially in the field of technology, where change happens in nano-seconds, and the ability to adapt, brainstorm, and innovate on a dime are basic survival skills. Google's organizational style is, as you would guess, web-based. They are fond of saying that they structure the company just enough to get things done, and subtract a little from that.

February01, 2007 at 9:52 PM

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