The Horizontal Leader

February 03, 2016



For centuries now, we have all been brought up with a certain image of the leader: be it the swashbuckling Alexander the Great, the charismatic Kennedy or even the iconic Jack Welch from the world of business. Leadership and Leaders are defined by their ‘verticality’, commander in chief of a huge army or the chief executive of a large organization. The size of their armies, the size of their organizations, their successes on the battlefield or in boardroom have become popular folklore. We read about them, see them on the TV or even pay to hear them talk. We come out feeling pumped, full of testosterone, ready to emulate them- to win, conquer and become, hopefully, another icon.

Something has changed in the 21st century that makes me question this definition of a leader. As the world gets flatter and faster, there are three changes that challenge the assumptions that made those leaders of the yesteryear appear in our bookracks.

  • First, the notion that we can conquer, control or even command the world or its people. In a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, chaotic and ambiguous) world, no one person can feel in-charge… we are constantly responding, reacting, reshaping to stay current.
  • Secondly, the world is so connected, it has grown smaller and bigger at the same time. Information is no longer privy to a few; it is a commodity. Also there is so much out there and there are so many ways to interpret it that one person cannot know it all, however much a genius that person maybe.
  • Thirdly, as every human being feels that he or she needs to be treated like a ‘person’, the notion of ‘I say – you do’, ‘I think – you execute’, is gone. Equality, equity and inclusiveness have become values that allow for individuality and no one likes to be ‘commanded’ anymore!

In other words, the world has gone flat and for me, this means that the world, at least the world of business, has gone horizontal. You hear new words that define a leader these days – authenticity, humility, listening, empowering, inspiring, etc. Consider how different this is from driving, commanding, authoritative, hard-charging and so on. We are suddenly in a different paradigm of leadership.

So how do we re frame our minds to the notion of the horizontal leader?

  1. First, the horizontal leader is less about the size of an organization and more about the size of impact the person makes. We have been used to lofty titles and office sizes based on how large our organizations and teams were. That, in the new world, is not necessarily leadership; it is more ‘positionship’. Instead, it is about the size of impact you are making. The new leader is an impact maker, a game-changer, and we recognize them for the disruption they have created. Leadership is about getting things done, not about the number of followers you have.
  2. Secondly, the horizontal leader does not lead downward (since they don’t necessarily have the big organization), they lead ‘outward’, i.e., they are less concerned about the position of a leader and more by the influence and impact they have. Therefore some of them may even choose not to lead the organization in the traditional sense of the word. They focus on their biggest and best strengths which may be creating enormous value but in a non-traditional way.
  3. Thirdly, such leaders are more connectors, and less commanders. Connectors comes from connecting the dots among the various eco-systems and making sense out of it… then using this understanding to propel the organization in a new direction. Again, in a world of uncertainty, such folks develop an instinct for the future that allows the organization to push ahead of the curve.
  4. Finally, for some reason, such people are high on the trust scale. They create a circle of trust around them. People follow them because they are genuine and human, vulnerable and imperfect, yet purposeful and risk-taking. They don’t stand out because of who they are, they stand out because of what they do. They may not go out to be a leader, but they develop followers and hence they, by default, become leaders.

A vertical leader moves one-way: up and down; a horizontal leader moves in all directions. It is best practiced through outcomes you create, the trust you engender, the purpose you crystallize, and sometimes your ability to be a good follower. Leadership in this notion, is not a given, or a fixed attribute, but a state of mind and character.

Take a minute to reflect the potential implications of this shift, if you believe what I am saying. Who, then, are hi-potentials in a horizontal world? How then do we train people to be horizontal leaders? What does it mean for career paths which seem to lead upwards?

What kind of a leader are you? A ‘vertical’ one or a ‘horizontal’ one?


By  – [VP- Human Resources at GE Healthcare]

Raghu Krishnamoorthy