In my work, I have seen that high functioning groups distribute responsibility to everyone on the team. While the chair, manager, or leader of the group can control a lot through his or her authority, no one person creates great work or brings about profound change.
In one group I worked with, a member who was leaving the team said in a farewell speech, “I believe the (head of the group) has a critical role to play here. But, in my opinion, the problems that exist cannot be solved by any one individual.”
In the book The Art of Possibility, Benjamin and Rosamund Zander talk about how to ignite the creative spirit with examples from music, orchestras, and conducting. The chapter called “Leading from Any Chair” talks about how an individual musician can lead an orchestra from wherever they sit. A cellist in a New Zealand orchestra wrote Ben:
Your shine has inspired me to believe that I have the force of personality to power the section from wherever I sit and I believe that I led that concert from the 11th chair… From this day I will be leading every section in which I sit – whichever seat.
The Art of Possibility, p. 76
Similarly, a core principle of the Adaptive Leadership model developed by Heifetz and Linsky at Harvard is to understand the difference between authority and leadership. Authority is the position you hold (captain, chair, manager, etc.); leadership is the action you take beyond the bounds of your position or authority, to help people grapple with hard realities. While exceeding your authority is not, in and of itself, leadership, it is the case that anyone – even a lowly engineer or a middle manager — can get people to address tough issues and thus exhibit leadership.
Rosa Parks went beyond her authority when she refused to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. What made her behavior an act of leadership was that she and other civil rights leaders used the incident to focus public attention and responsibility on the issue of civil rights.
Leadership on the Line, p. 26
What does this look like in a meeting? In one meeting I facilitated, a junior person spoke out, exasperated, to say, “May I suggest a break? I can see that people are tired and distracted. We may be fresher if we just stop for a moment.” I, as facilitator, had not seen this fatigue. It was helpful that someone else saw what was happening and had the courage to speak out about it.
The concept of “leading from any chair” means that anyone in the meeting or part of the group, team, or orchestra, can influence direction and outcomes. And if they have the passion, skills, and courage, they will.