Spiders & Conductors
There are many books and articles about leadership; I hope you read some of them. There is no absolutely right model of leadership, so read widely and make up your own mind on what makes a good leader. This section covers something I noticed long ago about leadership styles which I haven’t seen it in any book.
First, let’s review the basics. A leader is one who leads people. Gets them to all go in the same direction. Gets them to care about the work they do. Explains the rules, and processes, and priorities. Strong leaders have a worldview that imprints on their team. And each leader has a style that influences the behavior of the organization.
I propose those styles fall into two types: Spiders & Conductors. Spiders create a web of tight connections between themselves and others. Conductors coordinate the independent work of others, like the conductor of an orchestra.
When I first started thinking about this dichotomy, I believed that one was better than the other. Over time, I have seen that there is value in each. They have different strengths and weaknesses and an organization with just Spiders or just Conductors would struggle. This deepened my belief that both leadership styles are necessary in a company.
Understanding Spiders and Conductors also taught me that leadership styles, while generally innate, can be adjusted depending on the situation. Not very much, but enough to be successful in a wider variety of situations. For example, you may realize that one team needs more direct attention, and another team can operate more independently.
So let’s look at the two types in more detail to understand their impact on your organization.
The first type of leader is a ‘Spider’. Spiders are often very good at motivating individuals at a personal level. They build strong connections with their team. Spiders work closely with individuals to make sure that each team member understands what is expected and how things should work. Spiders take pride in answering any and all questions that arise. There is often a stream of people in and out of their offices.
Spiders create a web of connections in their department and organization. A Spider sits in the middle of the web, working all the threads to make sure the team achieves its goals. All threads lead to the Spider.
Spiders know an immense amount about their area of the organization. They know the people, processes, and data in great detail. They can tell you the status of all the projects in their area, as well as who is doing what task next.
Spiders can often appear overworked, as they have their hands in everything. They can become bottlenecks as many decisions and actions go through them.
Spiders can drive change quickly through their organization by working with each person to make sure they understand the required processes and actions. Because they are deeply connected to each person, Spiders know how to talk to each person to make sure they understand the change. Because the Spider is so involved in the day-to-day workings of each member of the team, the Spider can enforce the new behavior.
The other type of leader is a ‘Conductor’. Think of a conductor, standing in front of an orchestra. The conductor runs rehearsals and leads the performance. The conductor knows how all the distinct parts of the orchestra fit together. How they should sound when everything is right. What to change and tweak when groups aren’t working together well. It is common for a guest conductor to step in for just a few rehearsals and lead a successful concert.
The conductor of an orchestra gives overall signals, indicating timing and pacing. A Conductor in an organization understands how the overall business runs, how processes move between departments, and what impacts the pacing and speed of the company.
The Conductor builds an environment where the everyone understands a common vision, everyone knows their job well, and everyone is able to work for themselves. The Conductor can describe what needs to be done and then leaves the team to figure out how to deliver it.
This is not always easy. The Conductor needs to teach prioritization and the larger view to the team members so they can operate more effectively. Some team members won’t understand the larger picture. In these cases, the Conductor may need to become a little more Spider-ish.
The Conductor understands the interfaces between the groups and can communicate effectively to each on how to work better as a whole. She understands the strengths of each group and can adjust to play off those strengths.
A Conductor is more likely to respond to a question from a team member with another question. What do you think? What options have you considered? Conductors want team members to answer the question themselves next time.
Conductors can identify and communicate larger organizational changes. They can paint a picture of a better organization operating model.
Comparing & Contrasting
To better illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of these two styles, let’s look at individual points. You may perceive some of these as good or bad, but it depends on the situation. As I mentioned before, your company needs both leadership styles.
Spiders connect with individuals. Conductors connect with groups. Spiders know how individuals should work together. Conductors know how groups should work together.
Leaders will eventually leave their positions. When Spiders leave, they leave a vacancy in the team’s day to day operations. A team can feel lost during the vacancy. Momentum will help, but they are used to the spider making many of the decisions. The personal connections the Spider has will increase the sense of loss. When a Conductor leaves, there is less of a short term impact. The teams are used to operating independently and don’t need the Conductor as much for day to day. The longer term impact of a Conductor leaving will show up as time goes by and the groups get out of sync.
Spiders believe that today and tomorrow are most important. The future will take care of itself. Conductors believe that the future is inevitable and needs to be planned. Get the future right and today will take care of itself.
Both Spiders and Conductors know the people on their teams. Both know how to get good performance out of their teams.
Spiders work closely with each individual to make sure they are both doing the right things and doing things right. Conductors won’t be as close on the day to day tasks and but will better know how the team interacts with the rest of the organization. The conductor presumes her team is competent and able to do their job.
Conductors talk more about priorities and processes. Spiders talk more about tasks and next steps. Conductors can get frustrated when the people don’t understand the bigger picture. Spiders get frustrated when one of their team is an independent operator and doesn’t want to check in as frequently as the Spider wants.
Because the Spider makes many of the decisions and is involved closely in the day to day activities, rarely does someone do something that isn’t what the Spider wants. Because the Conductor indicates direction and priorities, but leaves decisions more to the individual, the team may execute tasks differently than the Conductor might expect. If the outcome is what the Conductor wants, great. If not, it becomes a teaching moment.
Developing Future Leaders
Good leaders are always looking for other leaders. If you have a strong team, there are at least a few that have leadership potential. They have become a leader among peers in the team. People look to them for opinions. Their suggestions are accepted quickly.
You can probably see spider or conductor tendencies in how they operate today. When they talk about the rest of the company, do they give you details about the people (spider) or do they talk about how the different groups work together (conductor)?
Developing a leader requires that you give them additional responsibility at some point. Spiders will be attracted to projects with lots of tasks and people. Conductors will be attracted to projects with larger impacts across the company.
Future leaders will naturally become a leader among peers and they have influence on your team beyond what you might expect of someone of their experience. Both Spiders and Conductors will benefit from being the interface with other groups, but approach the task differently. Spiders will be able to tell you all about the individuals in the group and the processes they follow. Conductors will be able to tell you how that group fits into the larger picture and how the organization influences them.
Spiders and Conductors are different types of leaders. They bring different sets of skills and understanding to their position and will manage people in different ways. Your organization needs both types. Your own leadership style will lean towards one or the other. Understanding the strengths and limitations of each type can help you become a better leader.