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Leadership: Lateral Dialogues

Updated: Mar 5

Leadership: Lateral Dialogues - Featuring Dr. Petros Oratis
Leadership: Lateral Dialogues - Featuring Dr. Petros Oratis
“Organizations cannot reach equilibrium without the interplay of power dynamics. In situations where everything seems harmonious and friendly, hidden dynamics may be even more challenging to navigate than in overtly competitive environments, where the competition is transparent.” Dr. Petros Oratis

Dr Petros Oratis, a leadership and organization development consultant, team facilitator, and executive coach, believes modern organizational success hinges on embracing lateral leadership and fostering collaboration across hierarchical boundaries. Lateral leadership refers to a leadership style that emphasizes collaboration, teamwork, and the ability to lead without relying on a formal position of authority. Dr. Oratis underscores the importance of leaders navigating organizational structures while promoting teamwork and cooperation between diverse roles.

SM: What specific event or realization prompted you to begin your career in organizational development?

Dr. PO: I believe my path to university was somewhat predetermined due to the specific nature of the Greek education system. However, globally, at that age, one might not have a clear idea of what to study.

As an undergraduate, I pursued economics to enter management roles within organizations. Studying economics offered intriguing insights early on, delving into systems, interdependencies, and the complexities of the world. This mindset proved valuable for personal growth.

Economics, being a positive science, introduced the concept of predictability and control. It emphasized that with the proper application of knowledge and models, one could achieve favorable outcomes. However, the study of human behavior introduced a contrasting challenge. Despite exploring courses in psychology and organizational psychology, the complexity of human behavior remained elusive to prediction.

In professional practice, especially in our field, dealing with large systems and intricate human behaviors does not align with the predictability economics offers. This realization led me to develop a curiosity about studying human behavior in unconventional ways.

I sought an alternative approach, leading me to explore organizations from a systemic perspective. The discipline I embraced is known as system psychodynamics. This entails examining not only the conscious but also the unconscious processes within individuals, working relationships, and larger systems.

SM: What sparked your fascination with flat structures, bottom-up, top-down approaches, and lateral leadership, leading to the emphasis on these concepts in your podcast?

Dr. PO: Both hard data and intuition are working jointly. The same concept applies to the idea of this very organic type of leadership. You need to discover your role and work through how you will lead with others. Simultaneously, this happens within an explicit structure.

This tension, I discovered throughout my practice, is relevant for all of us and becomes a part of leadership. My interest in studying this further emerged when I started my doctorate. Initially, I didn't know what I would research or what the topic would be. I knew I wanted to study something related to collaboration at a high level.

One of the early findings that guided me was the idea that when senior leaders are part of a team, they often do meaningful work together. However, getting them in a room together is usually tough. Taking them into a room where they are truly committed, not just physically present, but committed to their interdependency, is also challenging. 

I explored what logically makes us understand the need for collaboration, and while we want to collaborate, there is also something scary that pulls us away, especially as we grow in hierarchy.

This realization was the starting point, making me understand that it's not just about collegial relationships. The group of executives forming a team are also independent leaders trying to lead their areas. The challenge in approaching teamwork lies in the conflicting nature of these two roles, requiring a deeper understanding.

SM: Given the cultural component you've identified in your research, is there a natural inclination for humans to prefer top-down organizational models, and does this inclination differ based on the geographical location of the organization?

Dr. PO: Our relationship with hierarchy is ingrained in our human nature. It originates from our early dependence on parents, caretakers, and adults for survival, both practically and emotionally. As we progress from complete dependency to autonomy, a similar continuum unfolds in our careers.

In the early stages of life, we possess a mentality of learning from superiors, depending on their judgment, and seeking guidance. This mindset evolves throughout our careers as we strive for autonomy and increased self-reliance. We may then find ourselves in leadership roles. While this progression is natural, we often overlook the lateral dimension of collaboration and competition with peers, siblings, classmates, and later in groups.

Despite early dependencies on parents and later on bosses, we also depend on each other within systems. Clarity in structure minimizes issues of interdependency, but as clarity diminishes, understanding and negotiating interdependencies become more complex.

The conflict arises as our quest for autonomy transforms into a realization that we are now dependent on others who may not hold the same level of authority or concern for our well-being as our previous bosses did. The shift to interdependence on an adult-to-adult level requires a different set of values to guide negotiations and responsibilities for outcomes.

While cultural predispositions vary, the underlying psychological programming remains consistent. Understanding this programming is crucial, as it surpasses cultural nuances. From a psyche perspective, we navigate life with a pre-existing framework that may be more profound than other species, which typically have a short period of dependence followed by autonomy throughout the rest of their lives.

SM: You mentioned the impact of power on organizational dynamics. Could you elaborate on your perspective regarding the role of power and its weight in shaping the structure and functioning of organizations?

Dr. PO: We talk about formal authority, referring to the right I have to make decisions or exercise decision-making over others. This right is granted to me because I also hold ultimate responsibility. Authority often carries a negative connotation nowadays, especially in the current discourse about leadership.

The idea that a leader exercises authority can be a turnoff, associated with traditional and old-fashioned leadership. However, it's crucial to recognize that a certain level of authority is required and needed. Some roles entail legal responsibilities, and while the discourse emphasizes avoiding authoritarianism, it doesn't mean leaders should refrain from exercising authority altogether.

There are good reasons why authority may decrease. In complex situations, one person may not have all the answers, requiring involvement from various individuals. There are interdependencies and different organizational models. When authority decreases, power comes into play.

Power is more related to what resources, internal or external, one possesses—skills or other attributes that can influence others similarly to authority. While authority is explicit and tied to a role, power is more about the person and how they use their skills and resources to influence others.

Power can be positive or negative. The inclination to avoid vulnerability and dependence on others may drive individuals to increase their power. However, this can lead to negative connotations, with some being perceived as power-hungry.

In my research, the fascinating aspect is that power dynamics are not solely driven by egocentric leaders accumulating power and money. While some leaders may have that agenda, my practice and research experience indicate that power dynamics often emerge due to a lack of clarity and formal authority.

In situations where clarity is lacking, even if leaders deny or try to avoid competitive power struggles, they often occur implicitly. Misinterpretations arise, and interacting leaders may inadvertently become opponents engaging in a power fight, impacting their perception of each other. Guardedness increases, and there's a perceived power struggle, even if it's not explicitly mentioned or discussed.

SM: When did the notional lateral leadership begin? How far back does it go in terms of studies?

Dr. PO: Lateral leadership has existed for as long as organizations have been around, albeit in various forms and with different meanings based on the contemporary reality we are part of. There is a field of studies that focuses entirely on leaderless groups and movements.

While I don't specifically concentrate on that, my focus is on the lateral dimension within hierarchical systems, which make up the majority of our organizational structures.

A significant trend has emerged related to self-authorized or self-managed groups that operate without designated leaders. In such contexts, leadership is explored beyond specific roles or individuals, and it becomes more of an exchange.

In my field, the exploration of group dynamics, particularly from a psychoanalytic perspective, began during the Second World War. Pioneering psychologists like Bion and others studied groups with the understanding that authority and leadership are shared elements that fluctuate within the group.

In the mid-2000s, the concept of lateral leadership and collaboration gained traction in my discipline. Changes in organizational structures prompted a shift from the previous focus on multidisciplinary or cross-functional collaboration to a more relevant study of lateral leadership at the executive level. This shift was driven by the realization that, even with vertical accountability, leaders need to operate on an enterprise level.

Many organizational design approaches emphasize the importance of leaders learning to collaborate laterally. This doesn't only involve working with peers but also navigating lateral relationships with multiple leaders or role-holders from different parts of the organization, where formal authority may be temporarily absent, requiring leaders to either take the lead or follow. The dynamics of lateral collaboration in these situations are not always clear-cut.

SM: The need for collaboration seems undeniable in today's super complex and fast-paced environment. From your perspective, what adjustments do you believe leaders must make to navigate and thrive in this evolving landscape?

Dr. PO: I believe that younger generations, as well as the contemporary state, prioritize purpose and vision more than the traditional focus on career development. The notion of a good organizational purpose is evolving positively.

However, this shift poses a challenge for leaders across different generations, including the newer ones. It's about combining these two different styles, which can be quite challenging.

I've encountered situations where roles that are more supportive, often held by junior staff, become part of an executive team. They sometimes struggle to acknowledge that certain decisions are not theirs to make, or they need to accept that someone else ultimately decides. Not every decision is based on consensus.

There are times when a lateral approach enriches the process and other times when a more hierarchical, vertical structure is necessary. In these moments, certain individuals, such as business owners, carry the risks and responsibilities, and it might not be appropriate to distribute those risks laterally.

SM: When clients express skepticism about adopting lateral thinking due to concerns like shareholder expectations and the need for financial results, what is your initial step to guide them into embracing this perspective?\

Dr. PO: I want to clarify that I'm not advocating for a specific organizational model, whether it should be hierarchical or not. I never approach an organization or work with a leader with a predetermined idea of the right answer.

In my work with a leader, I aim to understand how the lateral dimension, always present even in hierarchical structures like the army, interacts with the actual organizational structure and its rules for them and their team. However, this isn't necessarily the beginning and end of my work. It serves as a highly informative dimension, providing insights into what is at the back of the leader's mind. If exploring it further is beneficial, we focus specifically on that aspect.

If not, I offer guiding questions based on certain principles to help resolve tensions they may be experiencing with increased awareness. I never advocate for an immediate reduction in authority or control. Instead, I strive to comprehend the drivers behind a particular behavior, assessing whether that style supports the role and understanding its limitations.I am cautious about placing people on a spectrum of hierarchical versus lateral because these orientations are contextual. 

Additionally, we explore personal predispositions regarding authority, hierarchy, and fluid leadership. This involves understanding unconscious relationship models carried into these roles, such as viewing authority figures as restricting autonomy. It's essential to be conscious of how these models are used and their potential limitations when interacting with others on a lateral level.

SM: What would you say is the one aspect of your job that makes you the happiest?

Dr. PO: The highlight of this work and what fuels further engagement is when you observe individuals or teams achieving understanding and insights that inspire change. It's not because they lack skills or because I might be more intellectual, but rather because the space for such insights didn't exist before. The work creates a space to gain insights into one's behavior and understanding of the system, which was previously inaccessible. 

I'm not claiming that it always leads to sustainable change with just one intervention, but those impactful moments are unforgettable. 

SM: Is there a specific point or insight you consider particularly crucial that you'd like our readers to pay special attention to?

Dr. PO: One of my significant insights involves encountering competitive or power dynamics that can be emotionally challenging. It's crucial to create a space for processing these dynamics without rushing to judgment or labeling an organization as unhealthy or unsafe due to them. Making such statements is unfair.

Organizations cannot reach equilibrium without the interplay of power dynamics. In situations where everything seems harmonious and friendly, hidden dynamics may be even more challenging to navigate than in overtly competitive environments, where the competition is transparent.

In essence, we must learn to engage with these dynamics more comfortably, without finding them overwhelming, and without assuming that it's solely for those engaged in power plays.

I suggest becoming more adept at negotiating authority consistently, particularly in highly interdependent roles. It's essential not to judge others when they adopt a certain mode but to find ways to enrich the dialogue and the overall process.

🎧  Listen on your favorite platform: Listen to the episode on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Podbean, or your favorite podcast platform. Subscribe to the Pity Party Over podcast.


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