Implicit Leadership: The Principal Loader In Flat Organizations

Sustaining team productivity is a critical organizational goal, especially for flat organizations. A flat organization is a firm that has an organizational structure with few or no levels of middle management between employees and executives. The purpose of a flat structure is to reduce the administrative cost so that the employees can be more directly involved in the decision-making process, rather than closely supervised by various layers of management. However, few studies have explored the power structure in a flat team. Power structure refers to the unequal status of each unit in flat organizations such that some units carry more workload and thus might own more discourse power in the decision-making process. Generally, we tend to take the absence of vertical leadership as the inexistence of power structure among teammates.

The power structure in flat organizations, reflected as the priority of units, results from team self-optimization. Because of individual capability or task division differences, teams often need to adjust/optimize their structure by prioritizing specific units in the resource allocation or decision-making. For example, in software development, unit A has more experience in coding, while unit B is good at marketing. Thus, A tends to be selected as an implicit leader in the development phase, while B tends to be selected as an implicit leader in the promotion stage. We define such selections/shifts in the power structure as self-optimization because the object is to benefit the organizational goal. The power structure plays a vital role in the collaboration of flat organizations, especially in the absence of superior managers. For example, there is usually no appointed administrator in an open-source software development process (e.g., Python community). Thus, major contributors are more likely to get a seat around the table, determining the direction of software development. As time goes on, some unit might gradually grow up as “Benevolent Dictator For Life, BDFL” [], the bellwether in the herd. However, because the power/priority comes from self-optimization, the implicit leadership is fragile: no king rules forever! For example, the BDFL in the Python community eventually evolved into a parliamentary democracy. In other words, when the implicit leader contributes only a small amount of performance, they will be optimized away.

Implicit leadership provides a contribution-driven perspective to understand the origin of leadership. In comparison, (Elizabeth,2012) provides a personality-driven perspective. (Elizabeth,2012) propose a leader-follower difference in the attention shift mechanism. They argue that leaders focus on aspiration points to maintain their current leadership position, while the followers’ attention shifts between aspiration and survival points. In other words, leaders take more unnecessary risks to show their excessive ability, while the follower, due to the occupation of a lower rank, has the room and rationality to incompletely head-on with the leader. However, such a leader-follower pattern might not work in flat organizations such that the implicit leaders do not account for the team performance but their own performance. Virtually their resource and institution advantage is built on the relatively good performance. Thus, they might transfer the risk to other employees to ensure a sustained performance advantage via current leadership. For example, they are more likely to reject the risky task in the cooperation, and the others can not refuse.

There are some rough ideas in my mind.

  1. According to institutional theory, employees might gain legitimacy for their hidden leadership position according to the volume of workload they carry. Thus, a horizontal authority is formed in a flat organization, changing the coordination among employees. We define such employees as implicit leaders. For example, implicit leaders can request high resource assurance prior to others in either timeliness or sufficiency.
  2. A efficent self-optimization is a core concern. Since the implicit leadership is temprary, when and how to update it is essential. We assume that organizations learn from the performance feedback and then adjust their power structure. Such a lagging self-optimization is common. We know little about the self-optimization mechanism in flat oganizatiosn. Does the implicit leader come from the consensus of majority, or just self-propmotion?


Boyle, E., & Shapira, Z. (2012). The liability of leading: Battling aspiration and survival goals in the Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions. Organization Science23(4), 1100-1113.

Categories: organization

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