Horizontal Leadership

By Gretel Bakker and Marcus de Courtenay and Dr. Marianne de Pierres

Updated on 18th June 2024

7 minute read
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The role of a leader is transforming.
Our ever-changing environment means that organisations are adapting to be more agile, innovative, and customer-focused. Moving to deeper levels of agility is calling on us to lead “horizontally.” The leadership of the past has been characterised by pyramids of power, fortified silos, internal competition, and achievement at any cost. But, it’s being supplanted with flatter models of team-based organisation that encourage collaboration, allow talent to flourish, and enable people to pursue a true sense of purpose.

Horizontal Leadership

Horizontal Leadership is about leading across an organisation, rather than top-down through vertical power, to optimise an organisation’s potential, end-to-end, as one thriving whole system. In practice, Horizontal Leadership looks like partnering, collaborating, sharing, coaching, empowering, and influencing. It’s breaking down internal silos and leading across teams, divisions, functions, and geographies to allow new, creative ideas to spring from all parts of the organisation.

Among a long list of benefits, Horizontal Leadership:
● Optimises project delivery through deep levels of ownership and
● Empowers and unlocks potential – people have the freedom to step
up, grow, and innovate
● Activates end-to-end thinking for considered, strategic decision
● Enables the organisation to better anticipate, respond, and adapt to
● Enhances problem-solving – through collaboration, diversity of
ideas, and sharing resources

Although many are beginning to understand the benefits of Horizontal Leadership, it’s a different story when it comes to translating this style of leadership into practice. It can seem quicker and easier to stick to the tried and tested route of vertical power and control. For those of us who do try to make a shift, we are often working against deeply ingrained hierarchical mindsets, habits, systems, and processes. In our work at Performance Frontiers supporting large transformations, we have identified 6 key levers that unlock Horizontal Leadership success. We call these the 6 movements of Horizontal Leadership.

Movement 1: From Vertical Hierarchy or Siloed Thinking to Whole Systems Thinking

Traditionally, we viewed organisations quite like machines. There were separate parts and functions; a centralised source of power; decisions were made
at the top and filtered down the chain of command; employees were just cogs in the machine. Today, however, the complexity and speed of change
in our environment has necessitated a new model – one that can adapt, evolve, and grow. One that is alive. Today’s organisations are living ecosystems.
Leadership is no longer about simply executing your own strategy, and achieving your own goals by drawing the straightest line from point A to B. Your
new priority is to seek outcomes that are in the best interest of the entire organisation, your customer, and your surrounding community. You must now shift
from ego-centric to eco-centric leadership – this is whole systems thinking.

Movement 2: From Fixed to Growth Mindset

If we accept that organisations are living ecosystems, then every team member plays a key role in contributing to a thriving system. And here, mindset is everything. Our mindsets are the subconscious drivers behind every decision we make. Left unexamined, they may guide less than desirable behaviours and actions that undermine the success of our
whole system – particularly when mindsets are ingrained in cultures and many people share them. In her seminal work on mindsets and motivation, Carol Dweck identified
two mindsets we tend to hold about the capabilities of ourselves and others: the Fixed Mindset and the Growth Mindset. If you have a Fixed Mindset, you believe your abilities and qualities are “carved in stone.”
Failure is feared. Self-preservation is your goal. On the other hand, a Growth Mindset means you see qualities and capabilities as things you can develop. Success comes as a result of learning, development, and grit. As such, improvement is your goal. If you embrace a Growth Mindset in your leadership, you will see abundance and possibility in your whole system and are more likely to engage across the organisation. You will see any change, challenge, and failure as opportunities to learn, innovate, and grow.

Movement 3: From Transactional Relationships to Mutually Engaging Partnerships

In a connected ecosystem, we must break down silos and share knowledge and resources across boundaries, working together to achieve greater outcomes. Therefore, effective Horizontal Leadership involves shifting from transactional relationships (where each party is in it for themselves) to partnering relationships (concerned with mutual outcomes).
A partnership is defined as a relationship where both parties feel responsible for the success of whatever project or process they are jointly engaged in. Partnering with others optimises the creation of value and enables us to achieve outcomes that we wouldn’t be able to accomplish on our own. You can grow partnerships and lead the development of partnering cultures by cultivating empathy and generosity. Strengthen these qualities by investing in partners when you don’t need anything in return. Do what’s within your power to understand and support the needs of those within your network. However, be sure to balance your selflessness with a clear awareness of boundaries.

Movement 4: From Power and Control to Influencing and Enabling

Once upon a time, those with positions held power. Nowadays, those who can influence have the power. Influencing allows you to motivate others without using authority as the key driver. It is, therefore, one of the key skills required when shifting from a vertical to a horizontal approach to leadership. There are many ways to influence. Good influencers
can both plan and think on their feet. They understand that influencing often takes time, and they invest in relationships and networks to sow the seeds of thought. They know that influencing is a dance between advocacy and curiosity. Influencing also requires a level of charisma. Develop your presence, interpersonal style and an authentic personal brand to win people’s allegiance. Inspire and move people through story: share an exciting narrative for the future.

Movement 5: Shift from Competition towards Collaboration and Co-authorship

Within a connected ecosystem, collaboration is your operating mantra. Inspiring ideas can spring from all parts of agile organisations, so collaboration is key to surfacing these ideas and bringing them to life. To collaborate well, you must shift from a mindset of competition and winning (often at the expense of others) to a mindset of co-authorship. As you are now all part of the one team, seek to understand the goals of other departments, divisions, and functions, and then find the intersection with your own goals. Collaboration requires regular and proactive communication. Communicate any decisions, progress updates or anticipated issues so people can jointly tackle obstacles together. Make sure you are proactively seeking input from others. Understand that great value can be found in conflict. It increases authenticity, enables you to make more informed decisions, and provokes new ideas and innovative thinking. Suspend your judgment, let diverse views emerge, and ask curious questions. Leverage commonalities to explore possibilities and solutions that benefit both parties.

Movement 6: From Information as Power to Transparency

Trust underpins Horizontal Leadership. It is a vote of confidence and reliability in a relationship. Without trust, there is no shared accountability, no mutuality, and no foundation for an organization to accomplish its goals. A key way to build trust is to shift from viewing information as power to leading a culture of transparency. Information as power is knowing something that others don’t and withholding it, diluting it, muddying the waters with misinformation to maintain your position, or even going so far as to leverage information
against others to actively weaken their position. This behaviour breeds a culture of competition, mistrust, and fear. Transparency, however, is a complete absence of secrecy. It is acting in a way where all can see and understand your actions. A culture of openness and transparency ensures everyone across the system is always operating from the clearest picture possible.

Gretel Bakker
Founder & Managing Director
Marcus de Courtenay
Executive Coach & Research Analyst
Dr. Marianne de Pierres
Content Creator

While every effort has been made to provide valuable, useful information in this publication, this organisation and any related suppliers or associated companies accept no responsibility or any form of liability from reliance upon or use of its contents. Any suggestions should be considered carefully within your own particular circumstances, as they are intended as general information only.

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