03 Jun

According to figures from February 2021, 40% of all websites are made using WordPress. The main reason behind more than 40 million websites operating on their platform is that it was one of the pioneers in allowing people to create websites without having any programming knowledge. In a time when it was already very clear that having a web presence vas very valuable, the only ways to have that presence was either to pay a programmer to design, develop and maintain a website, or learn how to do all that by yourself.WordPress solved that problem. And the way they solved that problem was to do that job for their users.

That is the value in WordPress: it takes care of work that users can’t, or aren’t willing to do.

The nature of work

In every interaction there is work. That work can sometimes not be evident, and, in fact, most times we’re unaware of it. But it is always there, and it can take varios different forms:

  • It can be a work of transformation by which we exert a direct impact of creation, destruction or modification on the world around us.
  • It can be a work of understanding, that seeks to comprehend the nature of things, their functioning principles, what to do and what not to do and, over all, what’s at stake.
  • It can be a work of influence that seeks to generate change, continuity, improvement, commitment, or else, in other people.
  • It can be a work of communication that seeks clarity in messaging, to build bridges of meaning that minimize friction and maximize efficacy.
  • It can be a work of empathy, that seeks to understand the nature of people: who is on the other side, what moves them, what motivates their actions and opinions, what it takes to propose something and have them accept it or, at least, listen to us.

And there are, of course, many other forms in which that work manifests itself in our interactions, whether we realize it or not. There is always a job to be done. However, we are almost never aware that said work exists and we are even less aware that there is always an instance in which we decide about that work.

My side or yours?

That decision is about responsibility, about who is responsible for doing that work: when you don’t do it, that responsibility falls on the other person.We could go as far as to say that all human interaction is, at some point and in some form, a way to organize the distribution of that work. Whenever you own the responsibility for that work, or when the other person gladly owns that work, things flow. Things flow even better when both people take some responsibility for doing a part of the work.

Interactions and relationships get stuck when neither one wants to take charge of doing the work.

At first sight, it’s not entirely evident but, if we zoom out a little bit, we can see that this is the essence of organizational culture, leadership and collaborative work. Let’s see how and why.

Belgian psychologist Esther Perel provides the wonderfully useful concept of complementarity to gain a bit more depth on this idea of division of labor in our interactions.

Complementarity means, in very simple terms, that “each of us can do what we do only because there is another person who does those things we can’t do, won’t do, or deny it is important”.

This idea resonated deeply with me because, as I mentioned earlier, it is my definition of what it means to create value, which is about the generosity of doing that which others can’t or won’t do. If we put it in terms of Perel, we can then say that creating value is the process of complementing other people (or organizations).

This allows us to see that, behind the division of labor that we all carry out (whether we notice it or not) in our interactions, what’s playing is this idea of complementarity and of value creation.

Uncle Ben: two kinds of leadership

We said earlier that the division of labor stems from a decision (conscious or not) that concerns responsibility. This is a deeper issue than it seems.

Popular culture has spread the idea, under the guise of Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben, that “with great power comes great responsibility”. First of all, I have to say uncle Ben (though in the original 1962 comic, the phrase comes from the narrator) is absolutely right.

However, I think that phrase is widely misinterpreted. And, above all, I think that misinterpretation is very harmful for the majority of organizations.

Among people who transit the path of leadership, there are two predominant currents: authoritative leadership and organic leadership. Uncle Ben’s line provides a simple frame to understand what each of those is about: the first one understands that responsibility is the price to pay to get power; while the second one begins by owning the responsibility of doing the work, and both leadership and power that usually come with it are a consequence of taking that responsibility.

Authoritative leadership

There are several problems with the worldview that drives authoritative leadership, but the main one is that it is very ineffective. That inefficacy is born out of a mistaken use of the word ‘leadership’ in reference to something that is actually nothing but authority. That mistaken use of the word makes it seem as if there is a back and forth between leadership and authority, when it is actually a one-way relationship. Leadership has the capacity to generate commitment and cohesion, and that is what grants authority to a leader. The opposite never happens: no amount of authority can make a leader. In fact, authority tends to create a series of unfavorable conditions, both for the organization as for the person occupying that authority role. Let’s see if an example can clarify this for us:

Let’s imagine that a person gains access to the highest position within their organization: this position grants them 100% of the power available and puts 100% of the responsibility on their shoulders. Now, for reasons I’ve already explored in another article, authoritative leadership –rooted in personal motivation– tends to be ineffective, and that creates problems. More problems means more things to tend to, more responsibility. When one already holds all the relative power (100%), that power can no longer grow in either concrete or relative terms, but that doesn’t happen with responsibility: when one has 100% of the responsibility, that percentage is a relative amount that stands for a body of concrete responsibilities that can grow, and in fact naturally tends to.

The math is super simple: if I keep getting more and more responsibilities, but I’m not getting more power in exchange for it, the deal gets increasingly less profitable. This begets frustration.

Organic leadership

The other current, organic leadership, stems from a will to generate a change. This leadership can leave aside naming and appointments: an organic leader does not require the captain’s armband to lead the team. A famous phrase by Mahatma Gandhi illustrates this quite nicely: “be the change you want to see in the world”.

A good way to understand the force in this type of leadership is to contrast it with its opposite: let’s suppose you want to contribute with ecology so you start by trying to get everyone in your building to separate their trash from their recyclables.

One possible path is to find out who is responsible for making those decisions and attempt to get that position for yourself. Authoritative leadership follows this path: if the building administrator makes the call on trash, then they will try and find a way to be appointed building administrator in order to decide. In other words, they will seek a position so they can exert power, in exchange for which they will have to take on a few responsibilities (because the building administrator doesn’t only exist to separate trash). Another possible path is to begin by the change itself: you can go door to door and communicate to all of your neighbors that you are starting a recycling campaign and that, if they help you by separating their garbage, you will take care of collecting it and taking it to a recycling center.

The first path is evidently more inefficient: it takes much longer and involves a certain degree of bureaucracy to get to an instance where some change can begin to happen. But let’s bear in mind that nothing guarantees that, once in that position, neighbors will follow and join the cause. The second path not only has a direct impact on the cause from the very first minute, but also has more and better chances of moving people to take action, because there is a consistency between what is said and done, and because it starts by taking charge for a part of the work, but not all: it offers people the opportunity to join a movement by doing their part, the possibility to commit and to belong.

So now we can see where WordPress’s leadership comes from: it is born out of the complementarity that Esther Perel points to. WordPress couldn’t be what it is without users who accept the help it provides and commit to doing their part (generate the site’s content) to populate the web; and in turn, many users couldn’t have a presence in the web without a WordPress that gets the work of learning how to program and maintain a website out of the way.

WordPress, and the same goes for any good leader, doesn’t do all the work for us; it takes the responsibility for a part of that work, and offers us to commit to doing our part, to take the other part of the responsibility, to contribute to something that could not exist without the commitment and the work of both parties.

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