What about the leader as a designer of spaces, a social architect that creates places (physical) and spaces? Not hard to imagine, but I think it is an underestimated concept, perhaps lost in the rhetoric, in the analogy.
Leaders need to create space for employee voices. For that read opportunities, platforms (digital and analogue), vehicles, processes and systems if needed, and, above all, the encouragement of behaviours: speak up, make yourself heard, provide an input, contribute, not just ‘doing your job’. This is the first space.
The second space is the informal organization, the one that does not ‘contain’ teams, committees, task forces, fixed conference calls and any other formal structure. Here, read the corridors, the buffer time, the cafeteria, the informal brainstorm. The informal organization is the oxygen of the company. Shrink that supply at your peril. This second space is also a mixture of physical and psychological spaces. Table tennis in a corner is not enough if there is not a culture of informal conversations, or if the culture sees them – those spaces, those semi-artificial break outs -as a waste.
The third space is personal. The space to think and reflect, to look at things with a critical view, to digest and compare, to form an opinion, to open yourself to the possible aha! To say, “I have a Wednesday afternoon free for this”, does not work. It must be embedded in the culture. A culture of 24/7 busy-ness does not provide that space.
The fourth space is also personal. It is the space of professional and personal development. It includes, of course, formal courses and training but goes well beyond these to mentoring, to time to shadow somebody, to do something that is not in the job description, or well beyond these, stretching people’s skills and imagination. This space requires the leader to not only accept, but create some slack in the system, some redundancy, some buffer that is not considered a waste. ‘Personal’ and ‘professional’ are blurred here. The thing not to do is to be obsessed with the ROI, with how doing this could have an immediate return. As soon as you start counting these beans, the desired effect goes out of the window.
The fifth space is collective. It’s the space for experimentation with ideas, the generation of as many bad ones as possible, the mental prototyping of possibilities, the playing with ‘unfinished thoughts’ and half-baked opportunities. Many leaders hate this. These are the ones putting off employees by saying, “come back when you have a perfect business case”. Since there is no such thing, people never go back.
Yes, leaders need to see themselves as architects, as space designers, creators, and implementors. This is an area where what the leader says counts less than what the leader does in this social engineering. It is therefore very silent, but the spaces will be very visible and the legacy will be enormous.