Book review: The Collaborative Leader by Ian McDermott & L. Michael Hall

Collaborative leader
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Title: The Collaborative Leader
Author: Ian McDermott & L. Michael Hall
ISBN: 978-1785830099
Reviewer: Jasmine Gartner, Jasmine Gartner Consulting
Reviewer's rating: 3 out of 5

Years ago, I knew a CEO who could not understand why his employees didn’t like him. His HR Director came up with a novel hypothesis.

“It’s just that they don’t know you,” he explained. “If you just go out and spend a few minutes talking to people every day, they’ll get to know you and they’ll like you.” I was gobsmacked that this had to be explained – isn’t it obvious?

But of course, it’s not obvious to everyone. Perhaps this CEO thought that his ideas and leadership spoke for themselves, and a personal touch wasn’t necessary.

As I started to read The Collaborative Leader, I realised that I had to try to read it as if I were reading it from this CEO’s perspective. The book, I thought, needs to come with a specification about the topic and the audience: a primer for the command-and-control leader who’s curious about what it would be like to be the complete opposite – the collaborative leader.

For someone like me, this book is both too detailed and over-simplistic. I don’t need over ten pages of explication as to what collaboration is; equally, I didn’t feel persuaded by the authors’ argument that the ending of Apartheid in South Africa is simply the result of collaboration.

But, if I think about it from the point of view of the CEO I started this review with, then I can see that it might be a really useful book. And, to be fair, I found value in gaining a little look inside the minds of those who might find collaboration to be a foreign concept.

The kind of leader who isn’t familiar with collaboration might have been brought up to think of leadership as an implementation of their own vision; in this scenario, to be seen as strong, almost all-knowing, being command-and-control, being able to argue their corner and recognised for their individual ideas all become very important traits.

To come around to the idea that leadership, as the authors say, “is not about the leader; it is through the person of the leader” (p.39) requires a 180 degree turn. For this sort of leader, a breakdown of what collaboration entails – having a shared vision, bringing people with you, sharing and cooperating, etc. – is probably essential reading. They are being asked to give up their role of authoritative parent and replacing it with leading a group of equals.

The top-down, command-and-control leader who’d like to put his or her toe into the waters of collaboration will find the second part of this book to be particularly enlightening. This kind of leader will no doubt find this to be challenging, and outside his or her comfort zone. But the authors break down the steps of a collaboration from initiation to celebratory finish in such a way as to allow for baby steps – toe in the water, and then back out again – and then in for a further dip.

The steps more or less follow standard models of project management, but they hone in on the specific skills, competencies and benefits of collaboration. The book helps the leader to think about what a collaborative culture actually means (listening to other people, for example, and getting their buy-in), why conflict and difference are not just good but essential (they improve decision-making), and how to handle that kind of conflict without stomping down on people putting their heads above the parapet.

The final, third part of the book looks at what can go wrong in collaborations. By identifying the various pitfalls – one upman-ship, the talk without the walk, what to do in a crisis, amongst others – the authors push forward an idea of authenticity: collaboration for the sake of collaboration is not worth it. It has to be genuine. This section, then, encourages reflection and asks the leader to consider why they really want to collaborate.

Towards the end of the book, there is a lovely quote from English anthropologist Gregory Bateson: “wisdom comes from sitting together and truthfully confronting our differences, without the intention to change anything.” (p.97).

This might be exactly the reassurance the leader who is new to collaboration needs and it may be the essence of the book: like my story at the beginning of this review, perhaps the first step forward towards collaboration is just to go out there, amongst your colleagues – chat a bit, and listen a whole lot more.

About Jasmine Gartner

Image of Jasmine Gartner

Jasmine has lived in London since 2008, and has worked extensively all around the UK, speaking about and developing, designing and delivering training on employee engagement, information & consultation, cross cultural awareness, unconscious bias and diversity and inclusion. She is the author of Employee Engagement: a little book of Big Ideas.

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