4 stages of open leadership development

Leaders work differently in open organizations. So how can you cultivate them?
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As I shared in the first part of my "Open Leadership Development" series, we started building our leadership development system at Red Hat many years ago, by finding great leadership training designed for conventional organizations, and adapting it to fit our open organization.

The challenge, of course, is that from our earliest days, we've always thought quite differently about leadership than most organizations. We believe that while not everyone is a manager, everyone can and should be a leader.

In our open organization, we saw that leadership capabilities develop in different stages, based on influence and impact. Great leaders don't just spring into existence fully formed. Leadership is a set of skills that must be learned and cultivated over time and with experience.

So a few years ago, we outlined four stages for leadership development in an open organization, which I'm excited to share. Over the years, we've used different words and mathematical formulas to describe the stages (and in the spirit of "release early and often," I want to acknowledge that we're still tweaking it as we go), but the overall concept has been relatively stable. I'd love to know whether these stages mirror what you see in other open organizations, particularly across different industries.

Personal leadership

Leadership begins with each individual. A person is a leader when they take initiative and collaborate to get their work done, ultimately “giving” far more to the organization (via their contributions) than they “take” (in the form of support and help from other people). Personal leadership enriches an organization’s culture, and others see these people as influential voices on a particular topic. Personal leaders can be an incredibly powerful force in an open organization, and they form the backbone of most open organizations. In a small organization, I suggest that most of your leadership development effort should focus on strengthening personal leadership.

Team leadership

When a personal leader begins to extend their influence beyond their personal domain, they reach the next stage: team leadership. This is when their impact becomes additive; when they learn how to tap into, combine, and align the individual strengths of every member of a group to bring about a shared vision and focus on results.

While this certainly happens with managers and their direct reports, in an open organization, that's not exclusive to people managers. Project and program leaders are examples of individuals who contribute at the team leadership level. So are members of other groups and communities—both formal and informal—who align the strengths and interests of their stakeholders, collaborators, and other people.

Organizational leadership

The next stage of leadership is what we think of as organizational leadership. It's when an individual's impact becomes multiplied because they compound and integrate the strengths of teams (groups of people) to create new organizational capabilities that drive important outcomes.

It's having the vision for where an entire organization needs to go, the foresight to bring the right teams and leaders together, and the ability to channel their passion, energy, and talent toward a shared organizational purpose that delivers value.

This stage of leadership is what's required of middle and senior management in open organizations. It's also what it takes to be an effective leader (e.g. board member, project leader, change agent) in any opt-in community that comprises many smaller projects or teams and spans many boundaries, e.g. an open source community with many sub-projects.

Enterprise leadership

The stage of leadership with the highest impact is what we think of as enterprise (or sometimes, "cultural"). It's when an individual leader catalyzes the passion and contributions across organizations and boundaries to form a vibrant ecosystem. Enterprise leadership is when the impact of your contributions is exponential, because it's magnified by the number of people you influence, and the number of people who they influence, and so on.

Enterprise leadership is being what Jim Whitehurst describes as "a Catalyst-in-Chief" for an organization. It's having the intuition and influence and impeccable timing to know when and how to bring forward important issues—and when to let those go. It's knowing how much direction to provide, how much context to give, and how much faith to have in your organization's ability to find its own way forward.

This stage of leadership is the most elusive to describe and to reach. It emerges when the culture is so robust that it helps reinforce positive mindsets, behaviors, and capabilities that permeate the company. While everyone helps to create it, executives in an open organization must own it and ensure it remains vibrant. You will also see enterprise leadership in visionary leaders who direct and strongly influence the efforts of large participative communities, such as Wikipedia or Drupal.

Putting it all together

For an example of how leadership looks at different stages, see the "Proficiency levels" of one leadership behavior, meritocracy. (The proficiency levels aren't a 1:1 match for leadership stages, but it does give you a sense of how one behavior is developed and demonstrated, at different stages of a leader's development. Consider all of this to be a work in progress.)

Developing leaders at all levels

Based on these leadership stages and the increasing needs of our growing organization, we realized that we needed to meet every Red Hatter where they are, understand and leverage their strengths, and support them in building additional leadership capabilities. At times, we also needed ways to accelerate their development, so they would be ready to step into bigger roles even more rapidly, to meet the opportunities in front of us. In my next piece, I'll describe one way that we do that.

An earlier version of this article appeared in The Open Organization Leaders Manual, now available as a free download from Opensource.com.

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DeLisa Alexander | DeLisa is Executive Vice President and Chief People Officer at Red Hat. Under her leadership, this team focuses on acquiring, developing, and retaining talent and enhancing the Red Hat culture and brand.

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