Global Newsroom

From Leadership to ‘Medarbetarskap’

Monday, 8. April 2013

Bhavesh PatelFrom Leadership to ‘Medarbetarskap’

One of the ideas of Initiatives of Change (IofC) is very simple: focus on ‘what is right’ rather than ‘who is right’ in any particular situation. ‘What is right’ could mean what is right for:

  • you and me
  • the community/organization
  • the whole planet
  • what is a healthy win-win choice for all of us
  • what is the future that wants to emerge


I would like to relate this idea of ‘what is right’ to leadership. Most leadership models focus on the individual as leader. What if ‘what is right’ is the real leader, rather than any one individual, and we can all search for how to be guided in our thinking, feeling, and action by this. If ‘what is right’ is the real leader, then leadership could be about the character and competence needed to search for and be guided by ‘what is right’

In a world that is becoming increasingly complex, unpredictable, and interdependent, trying to work out ‘what is right’ is challenging. ‘What is right’ changes every moment because the world changes every moment. Our actions change the world, and that change in the world also affects our actions, which means we and the world are co-evolving together. Which of our actions actually changes the world?

The emerging interdisciplinary field of complexity science suggests that change happens dynamically in complex situations. This means that change can be like an avalanche. An avalanche is caused by millions of small snowflakes creating tiny tiny changes, and at some point the whole system reaches a tipping point, and the next snowflake causes an avalanche. It is impossible to predict which snowflake will make the difference. Perhaps it is better to recognize that every snowflake makes the difference.

Within this scenario, each action that we take contributes to the avalanche, and also could be the one that triggers an avalanche of change, for better or worse. This means that each one of us really can make a difference in the world, each one of us can add to an avalanche of change, but we may not know exactly which action will be the trigger for the avalanche or when it will happen. If every action we take matters, it means we have already been given the power to change the world, and with great power comes great responsibility!

Each one of us has our own unique and different understanding of ‘what is right’. This is exactly why we need each other. One person simply does not have the ability to comprehend the complexity of the world and come up with the right answer. Perhaps embracing diversity offers a way forward. The development of communication and travel over the last 100 years has made the world much more interconnected. From knowing only the people in our village, we now know people in the global village. Diversity means experiencing much more difference in our lives, from the clothes people wear to the worldviews they hold.

Difference can bring conflict, confusion, and uncertainty, which can make us feel out of control, creating fear and the need for security and sameness. Difference can make us more aware of questions like what do I believe in, where do I belong, who are my people, who am I? Identity and interdependence may be the cause and the cure of many of the issues the world will face in this century.

One way to embrace these differences is through conversation, through connecting with each other, through really understanding where the other is coming from, stepping into their shoes, and assuming that each person has something to offer. New ways forward, unpredictable in advance, can emerge from this type of deeper conversation. This approach forms the basis of many new leadership approaches such as facilitative, conversational, dialogic, collaborative, co-creative, interdependent, networked, participatory, etc. Each of these terms has a different meaning, and yet the underlying emphasis is a shift from leadership focusing on an individual, to leadership focusing on relationships and turning to one another to find the way forward, to find ‘what is right. The Swedes have a word for this, medarbetarskap, which does not have a direct English translation. The word moves beyond notions of leadership and followership, to something that could be called ‘co-workership’.

Co-workership invites people into conversations about who we are, what we believe in, what our purpose is, what we do, how we do it, etc. A human centred organization is one that values the space where we truly listen to each other. However organizations designed like machines invite people to show up mechanically, like robots with tasks. Another metaphor is to think about growing organizations as if they were living systems, which means the invitation to people is also to be alive, to be human, and to enter into real conversation with each other. The most well organized organizations can fail when this deeper aspect of conversation is not cared for. Efficiency and effectiveness are not the same thing.

A 1993 Harvard Business Review article by Alan Webber suggests that 'conversation is the organization'. Maybe the future holds an invitation to co-workership, to conversation that embraces diverse perspectives, and allows us to search together and be guided by ‘what is right’.

To find out more where I have learnt about complexity, please explore Human Systems Dynamics and Cognitive Edge.

Bhavesh S Patel has worked as a fulltime volunteer for MRA/IofC in Asia, Africa, Europe and many other parts of the world, from 1999 to 2007 inclusive. Between 2008-2011 he worked for People Potential, a corporate training company in Malaysia, as a trainer, coach, facilitator. Between 2011-2014 he worked as a training consultant for IofC International. Presently he is working as an independent consultant, both on a voluntary and paid basis, and is not attached to any specific IofC body!

NOTE: Individuals of many cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs are actively involved with Initiatives of Change. These commentaries represent the views of the writer and not necessarily those of Initiatives of Change as a whole.