Photo by Khyta on Unsplash.
Photo by Khyta on Unsplash.

What might teal leadership look like?

If you’re familiar with Frederic Laloux’s Reinventing Organizations and his model of organizational development, you might know that organizations operating from a mainly teal paradigm have a flat hierarchy with self-managing teams.   Self-managed, autonomous teams don’t, however, mean no more leaders.  In fact, it requires leadership even more than ever before.  Just in a different way.  It requires teal leadership.

The main difference, compared to a more traditional ‘orange’ organization, is that leadership in a ‘teal’ organization is distributed.  This is the second in a series of posts outlining the main teal practices. This post looks at the characteristics of leadership in an organization operating mainly from a teal paradigm, and how to get from where you are towards teal.

Characteristics of an ‘orange’ management & control type leader

An organization predominantly operating from an orange paradigm has a management and control type of leadership style as standard.  This is in line with the top-down decision-making and power distribution as described in a previous post discussing what the structure of a more teal-like organization might look like.

In a predominantly ‘orange’ organization, the manager typically wants to know what’s going on at all times in an attempt to feel in control. People spend a lot of time and effort producing detailed plans and status reports.

Plans are typically seen as a predefined one-way road towards a destination. When there is an obstacle it first has to be overcome. This is like driving to a destination and encountering a roadblock. Rather than adapt the route, typically, the strategy is to add more time to the schedule.

Follow rules at all cost

Typically, there are standardized procedures that have to be followed at all times. When something requires a different approach, you first need to ask permission. Often, adapting these policies and procedures is time and resource intensive, making it easier to simply comply than attempt to change it. This often results in a slow and frustrating process.  To get to a specific state or outcome you have to jump through several hoops.

Rule from the top

A typical ‘orange’ leader tells people what to do in a top-down approach, inviting little feedback. Often, they make decisions in isolation from their ‘ivory’ tower based on facts in reports and opinions of trusted advisors. People on the ground have little to no decision-making power.

The leader is seen as the one with all the answers. When they don’t know an answer, they perceive it as a weakness.  They struggle to admit when they don’t know and refrain from asking for help.

There can be only one

As discussed in the organizational structure post, in a typical ‘orange’ organization there can be only one leader at the top of the pyramid. This scarcity results in competition and corruption as everyone competes to get to the top, often to the detriment of another person. It requires a survival of the fittest, predatory mindset.

These leaders, who have worked long and hard to achieve their status, will most likely hold onto their position for as long as possible. They know there is nowhere to go once they reach the top of the ladder.

Characteristics of a ‘teal’ distributed leader

Leadership in a mostly ‘teal’ organization, on the other hand, is distributed with several self-organizing, autonomous teams.  Where in a typical ‘orange’ organization leadership is a scarce resource, in a typical ‘teal’ organization everyone needs to act as a leader.  The more fluid structure with rotating responsibilities allows everyone to practice and improve their leadership skills.

Trust vs control

The typical ‘teal’ leader, in contrast to ‘orange’, asks questions rather than gives answers. Leadership takes on a coaching relationship. The assumption is that when someone needs guidance they will seek out a coach.  There is a belief that employees (or partners) can be trusted and don’t need to be controlled.

The coach assumes that the person has the answer already, they simply need to be reminded how to access it. Their role is to guide decision-making and growth through questions. The primary goal is to raise self-awareness and ensure more complete thinking.

Coaching is typically an advice-free zone where people are free to make mistakes.  This also means they have to own these mistakes and carry the consequences.  There are no bosses to buffer a junior from mistakes.

Distributed decision making

In a ‘teal’ organization, decision-making is distributed.  There is not a decision maker as such, but rather a decision-making process.  Each person is equally empowered to make decisions.  When there is a problem, they initiate the process.  This means each person in the team has to be responsible for teal to work, and why it can’t be rolled out as a big bang project.  These leadership skills first need to be developed.

Good decision making is part of the design of the system.

The primary benefit of distributed decision-making is that there is no single point of failure within the system.  This makes the system much more resilient and secure.  It also introduces the possibility to create a structure that can outlive the founders.

Everyone is a leader

In a ‘teal’ organization, in line with the more circular organizational structure, each person is expected to grow into a leader. This, however, does not mean that it is anarchy with everyone making decisions as and when it pleases them. Rather, it means that everyone gets a chance to become a leader. This reduces the need for competition and corruption and promotes collaboration. This principle should be reflected in their hiring process.

Leadership is seen as a role rather than a person. Leadership responsibilities are broken into different tasks, each being rotated by the board members.    For an example of how it practically works when you get rid of the CEO, take a look at the Crisp DNA which has transitioned rather seamlessly and successfully.  Another great resource with processes and examples is the official wiki.

Voluntary contribution

As everything in a teal organization is voluntary, people volunteer to take on one or more of these leadership responsibilities for a specified duration or project, knowing that someone else will get a chance on the next iteration or project.

A key success factor to further mitigate the risk of anarchy is the advice process, which is one of the required processes needed to be classified as a teal organization.

Advice and inclusion

A key difference between a predominantly ‘orange’ and ‘teal’ leader is that people ask for advice when needed. This advice process is the primary strategy for inclusion and influence. Whenever a decision needs to be made, key role players are asked for advice.

A good advice process requires responsible people.

The advice process can arguably make or break a ‘teal’ organization. In principle, the process requires the decision maker to consult everyone who will be meaningfully impacted by a decision and anyone who might have expertise in the matter. This advice serves as input into the decision-making process. The decision maker who initiated the process has the final say.

Rotating responsibilities

As already mentioned, a key to a more resilient and long-lived organization is the concept of rotating leadership responsibilities.

These rotating responsibilities are best described by the metaphor of a jazz band. Each musician is a master in their way.  During a performance, each player gets a chance to shine.  A good jazz band carefully listens and responds to the other players in an improv style.

Inspired by this jazz band metaphor, software development follows this principle of rotating responsibilities in ensemble-style programming. An ensemble typically has three roles – the driver, navigator, and team. Every 5 – 7 minutes the role is rotated so that everyone gets a chance, regardless of their level of expertise.  A more diverse team in terms of skills often produces the best outcomes and learning.

The terminology for these roles is inspired by a rally race. The driver is the person steering the wheel while the navigator is the one with the map.  In a professional environment, the driver does the work obeying the instructions from the navigator, who is the one responsible for making the decisions and initiating the advice process.

The rest of the team are more general contributors. They might point out whenever something is overlooked, do research in the background, or offer suggestions. When there are different opinions, the navigator is the one to make the final call.  If someone strongly disagrees with a decision made by a navigator, they accept the outcome but can question and reverse it when it is their chance to be the navigator.

This leads me to the next key characteristic required for successfully leading in a teal way, namely the importance of consent.


Consent is a foundational prerequisite for respect.  Having consent ultimately aims to find a win-win solution. It doesn’t mean that everyone has to fully agree with a solution, it rather means there is no strong objection to a proposed solution.

Consent is not about convincing people that one’s idea is better.  Rather, it is inclusive, taking everyone’s ideas and building on them incrementally.  The outcomes are driven by the vision while upholding the values.  In other words, it is first and foremost about alignment, understanding that an aligned team is a more productive team.

Where an ‘orange’ leader has veto power to overrule a decision, a ‘teal’ leader aims for consent. With everyone equally important, although valued for different skills and capabilities, a teal leader’s primary tool for power is their ability to reach consent before acting. A teal leader never bulldozes, unless perhaps in the event of a natural disaster or other crisis requiring immediate action without time for consent.

There are no zero-sum games in a teal organization.

Teal leadership requires an open mind and the ability to objectively look at options.  The teal leader includes all the different perspectives and ensures all the voices are heard.  In the case of a serious objection, a mutually beneficial solution is sought.

There are no zero-sum games.  If everyone isn’t on board an alternative is sought out.

Getting from orange to teal

1. Clarify the vision and values

The vision and values serve as the north pole of an organization without a CEO or manager.  To make good decisions the values must be clear.   The first step is to clarify and agree on the vision and the values.

If you already have values defined, spend time comparing the written-down values with what users and customers say and appreciate about the product or service. Values need to be grounded in reality and honest.  It can’t be a dream in the sky or a desired outcome.  Values are actively used every day.  Each decision must support and strengthen the values.

2. Introduce coaching practices

The core difference between leading by management and leading without power relates to the ability to ask questions. Thus, a possible next step would be to introduce coaching practices into the organization.

This can be done in many ways, but essentially you want to model to your employees what coaching is.  The best way to learn the value of coaching is to experience it yourself.  Consider making coaching hours available to start with.  Then decide on a strategy to roll out coaching organization-wide.  Maybe it is sending everyone on coach training, or maybe it is rolling out a peer-coaching program.

What is more important is that each person has a correct understanding of coaching and the main process of coaching. Many people see coaching as giving advice.  It’s often compared to a sports coach who helps teams improve their techniques by observing them closely.  While there is value in this, this is not true coaching.   It’s rather a form of mentorship and consulting.

True coaching is an advice-free zone.

True coaching is an advice-free zone.  Essentially it is a process to clarify a solution to a problem and drive meaningful action. Coaching can be compared to a midwife helping a mother give birth to a child.  The mother experiences the pain and gives birth. No one can do it for her.  Similarly, the coach is simply guiding from the side.  They’re your outer compass and mirror, reminding you when you get off track.

3. Introduce a decision-making & advice process

Another next meaningful step would be to define and implement a simple decision-making and advice process.  Here is an example of a clear, complete, and universal decision-making process.

Essentially, make sure everyone knows how and when to make a decision.  Then, empower people to act responsibly.  The decision-making process is arguably the most important in a distributed ‘teal’ environment.

4. Introduce ensemble-style meetings

Finally, it is time to break down the current management tasks and distribute these responsibilities in a rotating style.

To ease the transition, allow the CEO and managers to voluntarily offer tasks they no longer wish to own to be distributed.  These tasks can then simply be written on a to-do board or backlog and in each meeting or at the start of each project ask for volunteers to own this responsibility.

At the end of the project or meeting the task is returned to the board, allowing the next person to own it at the next meeting or project.

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