Leaders are Emergent Phenomena

Of the many things I've learned at Dave Snowden's talk at Agile Slovenia 2014 the thing that struck a chord the most with me is his claim that leaders are emergent phenomena of certain systems while other systems effectively prevents formation of leaders. To me that makes much more sense than claiming that leaders come about due to some inherent capability of some people to lead; especially in the case of large and complex systems where it's hard to imagine how could an individual change the system in such a way to make a fundamental difference. In a larger sense, Snowden's observation provides a great explanation why, for example, fascism and communism are inherently bad and not just some good ideas turned vicious due to particular personalities of Hitler or Stalin. But we can take Snowden's proposition also in more narrower sense of product development where the problem usually is the lack of strong leaders, not leaders becoming too authoritarian and vicious.

The product development belongs to the complex domain according to Snowden's Cynefin framework. That means that the relationship between cause and effect can only be perceived in retrospect and relying on experts and their knowledge and experience is not a proper approach to take. Instead the product team needs to go around exploring the environment until they stumble upon a pot of gold. A product development team should therefore resemble more a band of hunters than an engineering company and consequently needs a leader not a manager. The big difference between a manager and a leader is that a manager is pushing people towards some goal while a leader is front and center and it's up to the team whether to follow his/her footsteps or not. Without a leader the teams tend to pull in opposite directions and generally prefer to stay within the safe confines of their home turfs. If your particular environment is not producing strong product leaders the right approach according to Snowden is not to go searching for some person with leadership super powers (I've seen such approach miserably fail several times) but rattle and shake your company in such a way that leaders are naturally born. In most companies rattle and shake comes from external threat to company's existence. But unfortunately in most cases that happens too late for a leader to emerge or to make a difference.