A flock of birds flying in formation

Rethinking Leadership: From followers to leaders

– Lessons from Netflix and the USS Santa Fe

If you think that a leader is responsible to motivate their team and that empowerment of subordinates is the modern way to accomplish this, you are not alone

Most leaders in large organizationas formed their perspective of what entails great leadership from their own experience. And they pride themselves in all the ways that they act differently when finally leading a team on their own.

Unfortunately, this approach to improve over what one has experienced based on one’s own preferences is a very local perspective.

I like to characterize leaders based on three aspects they need to address:

  • Problems: every human being has to overcome actual problems, be it to hang a picture in the wall or to build re-usable rockets.
  • Systems: as soon as more than one person is involved in solving a single problem, interactions are required.
  • Human: whether we like to admit it or not, every problem we approach, we approach as a complete human being. How we hammer that nail into the wall or what idea we attempt next to land that rocket coming back from space: our human nature influences our thoughts and thus our actions.

As a leader, I feel responsible for all three layers. However, leadership literature focuses on the human aspect – and with good reason.

The highest calling for leaders is to be transformative. A metaphor to illustrate this is the transformation of a caterpillar into a beautiful butterfly: a butterfly is not only entirely different from a caterpillar – what is key is that there is no going back: a butterfly remains a butterfly and will never live in the shape of a caterpillar again.

To be transformative, then, a leader needs to accomplish change that not only lasts after they leave the room or go on vacation. No, the transformation needs to change the team in such a way that it can no longer fall back to who it was before. And while cultural change plays an important role, it is only one side of the coin. On the other side are the systems that form the backbone of lasting change.

In that sense, the goal of any leader must be to shape the backbone and grow the culture into a learning organization. Only then has their leadership been transformational.

Let’s turn our attention to two remarkable leadership models: one from the realms of Silicon Valley and the other from the deck of a nuclear-powered submarine.

In her book Powerful, former Netflix Chief Talent Officer Patty McCord shares the company’s radical approach to corporate culture. At the heart of this model is a simple, yet profound concept: treating employees as adults. But not just any adults, they are to be treated as powerful adults, possessing the power to make choices and drive results.

McCord asserts that empowerment isn’t something an organization bestows upon its employees; rather, it is inherent in them. It’s up to the company to create an environment that lets employees exercise their power. By doing so, you, as a leader, can unlock astonishing results.

How do you shape such an environment? Here are some key insights:

Netflix’s success largely hinges on its avoidance of unnecessary policies, processes, and rules. Instead, Netflix has created a culture where employees thrive in an environment of trust, autonomy, and responsibility. As leaders, our challenge is to strip away unnecessary bureaucracy and create spaces where talented employees can do their best work.

Transparent communication underpins Netflix’s no-rules culture. An open environment leads to a more collaborative and informed workforce. As leaders, let’s open the channels of communication, make data and decision-making processes accessible, and foster a culture that values input from all.

Successful leaders at Netflix align employees with the company’s goals. By focusing on high performance and ensuring each individual understands their role, everyone contributes to the company’s success. Clearly setting expectations and objectives, then giving employees the autonomy to achieve them is key.

While the high-tech corporate environment provides valuable insights, valuable leadership lessons also come from seemingly unrelated fields. L. David Marquet’s Turn the Ship Around! is one such treasure-trove. In it, Marquet shares his experience as a submarine captain and how it led to the development of the Intent-Based Leadership approach.

Marquet’s core insight is that the traditional leader-follower model can lead to inefficiencies, lack of innovation, and disengagement. His solution? Turn followers into leaders by empowering decision-making at all levels.

Here are some strategies to implement this model:

Instead of directing every action, set expectations and trust your team members to make decisions. This approach allows for greater autonomy and promotes a sense of ownership, leading to increased motivation and engagement.

Creating an environment where mistakes are viewed as opportunities for growth rather than failures to be punished is essential. Encouraging feedback helps to identify areas for improvement and promotes a growth mindset among team members.

Promote a culture where individuals are encouraged to ask questions, challenge assumptions, and seek clarification when needed. This helps ensure that decisions are based on accurate information and fosters a more open, collaborative working environment.

Share information freely within the team, ensuring everyone has access to the knowledge they need to make informed decisions. Transparent communication helps to build trust, foster collaboration, and promote a more effective decision-making process.

The power of these innovative leadership models cannot be overstated. However, they aren’t about quick fixes or temporary changes. They require a complete shift in mindset, a willingness to challenge traditional leadership models, and an openness to experiment.

As a senior leader or executive, you have the ability to shape your organization’s future. Will you continue down the same path, or will you take the bold step to transform your leadership style and your organization’s culture?

In this category, we’ll dive deeper into these concepts, offering case studies, practical applications, and strategies to help you implement these ideas. Together, we’ll embark on this journey of transformative leadership, seeking to create organizations where everyone has the power to innovate, to lead, and to succeed.