It’s the leader’s job to lead, isn’t it? No, and yes – so, why do we have leaders? Because leaders influence others, build engagement and direct efforts to maximise business performance! At the same time, with the rise of the knowledge worker and increase of distributed work, leadership is exercised by others than the formal leader. Over the past years People & Performance have worked with a shared leadership approach in project teams where the members shift in and out; in organisations with geographically spread members; in small entrepreneurial growth firms; in functions undergoing change; in medium-sized firms mobilising for growth; in teams with both internal and external project members; and, in wide-spread international matrix organisations. In all these contexts, the shared leadership approach has proven effective and more empowering than a traditional leadership approach, given that it is tailored to fit the organisation’s context.
Hence, in this article, we discuss how leadership can be considered as the amount of Direction, Alignment and Commitment (DAC) in a team or a unit. The research behind this way of looking at leadership has been around since 2008, where Wilfred H. Drath and five colleagues introduced the idea in The Leadership Quarterly. Focusing on leadership as outcomes, and not (only) what the leaders do, allows us to ask how a team together can produce Direction, Alignment and Commitment enough for high performance. The outcome focus drives a dialogue in the team about mutual expectations to collaborative behaviour and how we should be backing each other up. Also, it clarifies expectations around a sense of urgency, ambition and goal orientation; and agreements around standards and common ways of working. The focus does not remove the responsibility of the formal leader. Still, it does highlight the sharedness of obligations and allows capable team members to step up and show the way. In a way, it taps into a positive group pressure recognised in high-performance teams in sports, business and high-risk environments like military and firefighting.
We identify how it looks like when Direction, Alignment and Commitment are strong in the organisation - and, in turn, how it looks like when there is a lack of any one of them. With that in hand, both leaders and team members participate in building a shared language, which allows them to identify the state of DAC in relation to any target, task or focus area. Exactly how DAC looks like differs with the organisational context and the type of team or unit, but examples are;
Direction: Together, we have a clear understanding of what we need to achieve and the team’s priorities; and, we understand how success looks like.
Alignment: Our ways of working are in sync with the wider organisation; we understand our accountabilities, and our combined work fits together.
Commitment: We commit to joint decisions; we take care of each other, and we hold each other accountable.
Developing a shared understanding of DAC in a team empowers all team members to contribute in the production of DAC. That makes leadership an active exchange process, still with a formal leader as overall responsible, but driven by active co-creation from everyone in the team.
The benefit of understanding what good looks like
By building such a shared understanding of "how good looks like", both leaders and team member are empowered to point out the need for more clarity around any of the DAC elements. For example, more alignment about prioritisation of resources, targets, and sequence; or, more commitment and accountability to deliver as agreed. We also teach leaders how to look for dysfunctionalities when one of the three components are lacking behind. Also, here, it differs depending on the leadership context, but examples are;
Direction deficit: When the direction is stated in such general terms that it cannot be used for prioritisation. When competing priorities are left unresolved. Or, when it is unclear who benefits from following the direction.
Alignment deficit: When people avoid coordinating because they find it slow and painful. When standardising is confused with reduction of freedom to decide. Or, when it is unclear who has which authority to decide.
Commitment deficit: When team members complain about other functions rather than suggest their own actions to improve it. When members feel that not all in the team contributes enough. Or, when people argue for their position rather than create common ground.
But, again…it’s the leader’s job to lead, isn’t it?
Yes, it is and will remain so. However, we experience more highly qualified team members who can contribute a lot to the performance when empowered to participate in creating DAC enough to perform. Also, many leadership training programmes focus on what the leader should do, rather than which outcomes leadership should produce! Based on our experience, we recommend also including the outcome perspective in leadership training and development. The benefit of focusing on what impact leadership should create in each organisational unit is that it ties together strategic, tactical and frontline leadership. Across the levels, the discussion becomes tangible when the focus is on the necessary level of DAC in the organisation related to the business objectives.
Our hope with this article is to inspire thoughts on how to link leadership to the business objectives and to drive organisational performance by mobilising capable team members.
We are happy to share our experience from embedding DAC into company leadership models, training programs or our work with DAC in strategic management teams. Or, from our experience with 360-degree leadership measurement where the team members are also assessing the team's DAC behaviour. Or perhaps, from our learning of the effect, we have seen DAC make to organisational performance. On that note, we are happy to be challenged on what we have learned about the impact of DAC so far. So, please share your experience and engage in the leadership dialogue – we would love to learn more about leadership together!