How collective leadership leads to sustainable growth

Collective leadership
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Joan O'Connor
10Eighty
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In uncertain times, we often hear calls for ‘strong’ leadership when what we need is leadership that can keep pace and adapt in a fast-changing world. ‘Strong’ implies traditional, bureaucratic, directive, a command-and-control model based on the economic, cultural and social norms of an earlier age.

In the modern workplace, our ideas of what a leader looks like have changed and, increasingly, we view leadership as a collective process rather than an individual role. Flatter corporate structures and technological advances mean we depend more on networks and collaborative work methods; a workstyle that is less top-down and much more entrepreneurial, agile and responsive to developments and disruptions in the marketplace.

The HR Director is well placed to challenge the notion of “strong leadership”

Why? Because they see today’s workplace challenges in their full complexity and understand that what is needed is a broad coalition of skills and experience to anticipate, assess and address that dynamic.

Our argument at 10Eighty is that leadership is inherently collective and is based on team values, respect and listening, geared to a shared understanding of organisational objectives. The leader who favours a collective style appoints high-quality people to their team who can shoulder their share of responsibility with energy and commitment - empowered employees who demonstrate engagement with role and task.

In essence, we believe that collective leadership is characterised by the distribution of ‘the lead’ to wherever the requisite talent, expertise and motivation is found. Responsibility for strategic and operational leadership is shared by each member of the team.

Development initiatives, grounded on the real work of the organisation, should include support such as mentoring, coaching, and job shadowing.

All team members must be open to learning and display a willingness to take risks and consider different perspectives to optimise potential, while accepting accountability for their performance and contribution towards organisational goals.

Focus on outcomes

Criticism of leadership development initiatives tends to suggest that scant thought is given to the outcomes of such programmes.

Too often leadership education is a series of interesting and sometimes entertaining exercises that do little to change attitudes, behaviour, or skills.

A leadership curriculum that has impact is predicated on shared leadership; since a single leader cannot be all-seeing and all-knowing they need to rely on the contribution of each member of the organisation.

Senior management sometimes pays only lip service to the notion of employee engagement, regarding it is a somewhat nebulous and soft concept, but HRDs know that the engaging leader improves the effectiveness of individuals, teams and the organisation.

Leadership strategy should be based on a forward-looking understanding of context and culture alongside a horizon-scanning awareness of challenges and opportunities likely to impact the organisation.

Wayne Clarke, founder of the Global Growth Institute says “Words like ‘partnership’ and ‘collaboration’ don’t seem to fit with ‘profit’, ‘winning’ and ‘success’ but they are key to sustainable growth. My money would be on investing in any organisation where leaders are able to create a culture of ‘constructive interaction’.”

We would argue that organisations that encourage collective leadership are more likely to have a vision of where they want to be and know how to get there.

Shared values and common purpose

Collective leadership recognises the different strengths of team members and, at its best, will not only be more flexible in response to challenges but also far more likely to come up with innovative solutions.

The strength of this style is that it unites people in a common purpose and the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. It works because it is predicated around three parameters:

  • Collective identity - employees feel they are part of a team,
  • Engagement - employees identify with organisational values and goals; and
  • Culture - employees have shared models of what is expected and how to deliver.

New ways of working mean that often we are leading a diverse and dispersed workforce while encouraging staff to innovate and speak out, built on a foundation of shared that creates value for all stakeholders while meeting corporate objectives. Leadership in this context means understanding what success looks like for your people and providing them with the conditions where they can excel - the best people want to work where they can do their best.

As relationships are formed around shared objectives, the team builds a collective awareness of challenges and takes ownership of creating new approaches to work.

I would emphasise the importance of networks and relationships, this social capital is sometimes neglected at senior levels, and it is integral to effective leadership.

HR, with a finger on the pulse with regards to talent pipeline, should be able to drive forward a strategic leadership model where leaders are able to put the emphasis on relationships with the people they lead, doing what is needed to get the job done effectively.

I believe that collective leadership drives innovation as employees are likely to be more creative and innovative, prepared to take risks and employ lateral thinking in a culture of transparent and open communication.

The key is in ensuring people are committed and aligned to the corporate mission, while taking responsibility and accountability for organisational goals.

In essence, we believe that collective leadership is characterised by the distribution of ‘the lead’ to wherever the requisite talent, expertise and motivation is found.

To work well it requires leadership to confront barriers, silos and hierarchies so that work can be addressed in more informal, flexible and innovative ways that encourage collective engagement with the leadership process.

Look to the future

What happens after a leadership development programme is over is what really matters, the vision of “what happens afterwards” should be clear to all involved from the outset.

Follow up should, ideally, involve participants in designing and teaching future leadership initiatives or in creating special learning activities for other stakeholders.

An HRD championing a collective leadership style will seek to design tailored leadership development for all levels, making it part of an ongoing process relevant to all staff, existing leaders and potential and future leaders.

Development initiatives, grounded on the real work of the organisation, should include support such as mentoring, coaching, and job shadowing which are particularly useful in equipping candidates with the skills and experience relevant to leadership roles.

The end game is the development of an energised team of co-leaders and co-learners committed to collaborative action in the service of a collective vision.

Such visionary leadership strategy enables and organisation fit to meet the challenges of disruption from new entrants and changing consumer behaviours.

The economic environment means we are driven by budgetary controls, globalisation and talent shortages and these business imperatives shape leadership development initiatives that aim to harness employee engagement to deliver business strategy.

Collective leadership development that adapts to context and challenge by integrating real-time experience in anticipating and negotiating a complex and volatile workplace.

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