I had dinner last night with a couple of people writing a report on the future of leadership for a Very Large Company. I argued once again against the importance of leadership, at least in its traditional sense. I believe less and less that there is some masterable set of skills that constitute leadership, especially as the organization gets larger. Further, I think it’s almost always useful to replace the question “What skills does a leader need?” with “How should the group be organized to best achieve its goals?” Sometimes the answer to that latter question will be, “It needs as strong leader,” but more often the traditional tasks of leadership will be distributed among members of the group, or will become a property of the group itself. (For example, in a collaborative or emergent group, decision-making is a property of the group.) (Tony Burgess of Company Command mentions this line of thought in an article at the Harvard Business Review site. In a hallway of mirrors, he mentions my interviewing him for an article of mine that HBR is considering running.)

Last night, I gave the usual examples of Web leadership: Linux, Wikipedia, and Open Source more generally. These projects would not have been possible in a traditional leader-led organization. But, in addition to looking at large-scale collaborative projects as case studies of Web leadership, suppose we look at what we’re replacing traditional institutions with. YouTube is replacing traditional broadcast TV — not removing broadcast, but eating into its TV-watching share — and file sharing is doing the same to the recording industry. Yet these epochal changes were accomplished without traditional leaders. And these are not merely illustrative examples. Most Web users don’t have any experience of contributing to Linux, Wikipedia, or Open Source projects, but we do routinely encounter YouTube and music sharing. Most Web users therefore have direct experience of the power, success, and utility of leaderless change and leaderless institutions. In fact, anyone using the Web has that experience, because the Web only succeeded because it is leaderless. That experience of organizing without organizations (a la Shirky), leaderlessly, is defining the upcoming workforce (as the young love to be referred to as).

There are still domains and circumstances in which leadership matters. But we are losing — have lost — the assumption that groups require leaders to accomplish their mission. Increasingly, the need for a strong leader is a sign of a defect in the group structure.