8 Things Collaborative Leaders Know


Are you a collaborative leader?

Collaborative leaders understand that organizations are networks of relationships and that relationships are the glue that holds them together.

Anyone can be collaborative leader — no matter whether you are the president, a mid-level manager or a front-line supervisor.. or in a large corporation a small business, a non-profit, or a school.

Collaborative leaders create communities, whether they lead the entire organization or a team within the organization.

Collaboration is not an option – it is an imperative.

If you are in any doubt that collaborative leadership is an imperative, and not just a fad, take a look at any of these 22 articles in the Harvard Business Review series on collaboration.

Or even better yet, watch this TedTalk by reknowned futurist Don Tapscott

It will be one the best 10 minutes you spent.

The need for collaboration is driven by the current economic crisis and supported by the advances in technology, specifically Web 2.0.

What Collaborative Leaders Know:

1.  You are not in control. 

You never have been. It doesn’t matter who you are. Perhaps you can control things when you’re around, but what happens when you’re not there? You can’t mandate discretionary effort. People might be compliant, but they only give their discretionary effort when they want to. According to John Chambers, CEO of Cisco, “You cannot create collaboration if you think leadership is about control.”  He says making the shift from a “command and control” mindset was not easy, but crucial to creating engaged workplaces. There’s a lot of opportunity for other leaders to make this shift, as in their 2012 global workforce study, Towers Watson found 46% of workers are not engaged.

2.  It’s not possible to know all the answers. 

Crucial information is held in too many different places. Instead of seeing your role as providing answers, learn to ask really good questions. A good question can be worth a lot more than a quick answer because it opens up possibilities for creative new ideas and solutions. Learn to tolerate ambiguity. Be willing to wait in the land of “not knowing,” and answers will arise from unexpected sources.

3.  People want their organizations to be successful, and when given an opportunity to participate, they bring their best thinking and contribute fully.

Through involvement, people develop deeper understanding of the issues and goals and become more committed to implementing decisions. Inviting them to actually participate in decision-making creates stronger buy-in and also builds their leadership capabilities for the future and increases their level of trust in each other and in leadership.

Creating opportunities for involvement does not mean decisions need to be made by “group think.” When people feel their viewpoint has been considered and they understand the rationale for a decision, they will support it because respect and trust are byproducts of dialogue.

4.  Get used to transparency.

Technology has created the opportunity to know. Information is accessible, whether you want to share it or not.  In fact, the organization benefits when information is freely shared. People can do their job better when they have easy access to the information they need.  And it becomes possible to create productive partnerships with other organizations, change the competitive advantage to what Rosabeth Moss Kanter calls a Collaborative Advantage.

Values-driven leadership is essential. You can’t hide your morals behind closed doors. It might once have been possible to get away with questionable ethics, but there’s nowhere to hide anymore.

5.  Diversity is the bedrock of innovation.  

When diverse perspectives are combined, discussions are richer, more robust, and more relevant and we find better solutions. Conflict and creative disagreement, when focused on issues and not personalities, serve as the “grain of sand in the oyster” to produce creative new ideas, approaches and solutions.

6.  Tapping the entire network offers a huge opportunity.

In hierarchical organizations, the flow of information and decisions tends to be linear.  Although hierarchical organizations have advantages in terms of efficiency, there is a huge opportunity cost in not having access to relevant resources.

The uptapped potential in a hierarchy from McKinsey’s Mapping the Value of Employee Collaboration

Networks are messy. It’s difficult to see the whole picture.  But leadership can emerge where it is needed, not necessarily from an assigned position. And often innovation and creative solutions emerge as a result of the informal interactions that occur between individuals with different perspectives.

7.  Go slow in order to go fast.

Taking time to plan right in the beginning will speed up your implementation.  When you’re excited to get going, it can be hard to take time out to bring everyone onboard. But there’s a price to pay if you don’t – having to redo work and wearing people out. It’s costly and de-motivating. Take care of the beginning and the end will take care of itself.

8.  The health of the whole and the health of the parts are inter-dependent.

People are not assets. They are human beings. Without them, there is no organization. The health and well-being of an organization is dependent on the health and well-being of its members.

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17 comments to 8 Things Collaborative Leaders Know

  • It is fascinating to see how some people still believe they have to do it on their own, and see The Leader as the person that needs to know everything. With the demands of today’s deliverables, you certainly can’t do it all by yourself, and if as a leader you are always the smartest person in the room, that is not my idea of a recipe for success.

    • It is fascinating to me also, Thabo. I think for some people it is ingrained in their temperament and for others it has been ingrained by their culture. The good news is, many leaders who have an innate instinct to do it alone are willing to collaborate because they understand intellectually that taking the time to involve others will get them further faster in the long run.

  • Jesse, I agree with everything you say and have been espousing collaboration as a productivity model for quite some time. I have two thoughts on the subject:
    1. I tend to use the alternative idea of ‘co-creation’ because some types on leaders / managers view collaboration as too close to the now unfashionable notion of compromise. Co-creation sounds more outcomes driven. I certainly use it when I’m working on client projects involving their customers.
    2. There’s been an emergent notion that (some) sociopath behavior can be useful in organizations, i.e., they break status quo thinking, etc. I suppose Steve Jobs is a good example. I’ve been thinking about how we balance collaboration with the inescapable fact that elements of sociopath behavior are a fact of life in some organizations.

    • Great food for thought, Alan! To your first point, I like the term “co-creation.” In the past, I have used the terms “visionary leadership” and “transformational leadership.” I think it’s a good idea to change the language at some point in order to keep it fresh. Over time the words we use get reified – it is the nature of language to assign meaning to words and once defined we are no longer driven for deeper understanding. Your second point is provocative. I’m not not familiar with this literature, so am not prepared to comment. My initial thoughts are that sociopathic behavior includes deception, willingness to harm others, and lack of guilt or remorse. I question a long-term benefit of that type of behavior. Real collaboration involves conflict, however, it is centered around ideas, not personalities.

  • jack skuatt

    Perfect! I’ve tried to run by these rules for years not having elucidated them this way. I’m quite happy with how we run after 30 years. Empowering your staff is the only way to succeed in todays world. Patton would not succeed in today’s Army as today everyone needs to be empowered to some extent. The days of mindless obedience to authority have waned and that model will no longer work. I suspect today’s model might not have worked 50 years ago either.

    • I appreciate your endorsement for collaborative leadership. Clearly it has worked well for you and your team. You make an interesting point about what’s required of leadership being dependent on the context. 50 years ago, tribal leadership in remote areas of South America required a different kind of leadership than what was required in Tibet or what was required in The United States. Now, due to the advent of easy travel via airplane and easy communication via the Internet, our economies are intertwined and we are globally interconnected. Your point is well taken because today, the context for considering leadership has changed as our inter-dependence has changed.

  • Really glad I found your article through the Google+ network and some great thoughts in your exchange here.

    I have been working with some colleagues recently on the way to spread the message about collaborative leadership styles and behaviours and I will be sharing your article with them as it touches on so many points that I have been introducing to this conversation. I really like the way you have drawn attention to unlocking the potential of the diversity in the network.

    I’m conscious the language of collaborative leadership and even co-creation is somewhat alien to many managers who are working in organisations bounded by traditional management thinking. I think it’s really important to help people develop behaviours and habits that support effective working styles in complex environments and the challenges of engagement and participation should be the key area of focus.

    I’m looking forward to future conversations in this area.

    • Hi Vince, I’m glad you found my article helpful. I agree that what’s most important is to help people develop the behaviours and habits needed in today’s complex environments and that participation is a key area of focus. For many leaders, this requires a mind shift – to rethink their understanding of leadership. Hopefully, helping them understand these principles can help them begin to consider the implications for changes in their behavior.

  • Hi Jesse,

    An outstanding list, especially #1.

    There’s a common misconception among executives, and that is that they have to manage their people. They’re not responsible for managing people; they’re responsible for managing people’s environments.

    The absolute best thing a manager can do is to create a context where people feel free to create and perform their best. And that’s NOT by telling them what to do, but agreeing with them the criteria they need to make the right decisions and then giving them the resources and guidance they need to perform well.

  • Joe Passkiewicz

    Jesse: Thanks for the excellent post. Strange timing- just read another post this morning on the same subject! I think one of the most important features of collaboration is how it enhances employee engagement. I have witnessed first hand the power that comes from involving others in the decision-making process. I think that one of the barriers is often a reluctance to get others involved simply because it is easier to make the decision by yourself. I will typically fight the urge to decide until I have asked others involved for their opinions and feedback. Seems like the courteous thing to do- doesn’t it? There also appears to be a streak of power (beyond #1 control) that runs along with this subject- agree? Thanks for your work here!

    • Thanks, Joe. Your comments remind me that the ability to recognize an urge and decide to behave differently is one of the things that separates humans from other primates. When we see the results of taking the time to involve others – better results, greater commitment and as you point out, increased engagement – it is logical to fight the urge to “do it alone.” I think this easier for some people to do than others, and I agree that power is a huge undercurrent. And as you also point out, expediency is an issue because involvement takes more time. (My post Collaborate or Do It Alone? provides guidelines for determining when to involve others and when it’s not needed.) Thanks for deepening the conversation, Joe.

  • Gurmeet Singh Pawar

    Hi Jesse,

    This is a great post, marvelous video and some great comments. Don Tapscott thought on Starlings’ murmurations was beautiful. Going through them had me tempted to dive into the vastness of these thoughts but felt that inappropriate so refrained myself from doing so. Therefore I would just put two quick thoughts on them;

    1. ‘Collaboration for what?’ Historically people have worked for Royalty, other people, governments and finally corporations but never for themselves. If you ask anybody a question, ‘What do you do?’ they always answer, ‘I work with (read “for”) so and so…’ but never ‘I work for myself and do this part.’ Now a person cannot collaborate when working for someone else, it can only take place when everybody is working for something beyond themselves.

    2. Collaborative leaders is not possible in a sense. ‘Collaboration’ and ‘Leader’ are contradictory concepts and either you can have collaboration or leaders. Leaders came into being because people wanted someone else to decide for them and be accountable for them, therefore we come up with concepts like ‘Hero’, we worship them…from kids stage to adult stage we have a concept of heroes. Even concept of God is in a way to create a ‘Hero’. And when you create Hero’s you create inequality. These so called heroes are greater than us. For example every religion has its Hero, like Christians have Jesus, and Jesus is way above us all and there can be no question of equality when we talk of such hero’s.
    And the funny thing is that collaboration can only take place among equals not leaders and followers.

    Again, your post takes me into reflection mode and make me think…I appreciate being on your Blog…Thank You.

    • Thank you Gurmeet for sharing your reflections. You beautifully explain the interplay between vision and collaboration. I am in such agreement that in Full Steam Ahead, I put equal weight on the explanation of what a vision really is and the importance of using a collaborative process to create it. A charismatic individual can draw people around their own vision, but the success of the vision remains dependent on the presence of that leader, and collaboration is difficult. The kind of vision I am interested in is the kind that continues to guide people beyond the lifetime of the person who articulated it. This can only occur when individuals view the vision as their own vision. In this case, collaboration is easy.

      Your thoughts on the contradictory relationship between “collaboration” and “leader” have given me pause for thought which I will continue to contemplate. You remind me we need to be very clear about how we define leadership. The traditional view of leadership, even the benevolent patriarch, does not work here. The issue is that the leader, as you describe, is seen as separate from us. In part this occurs because of the actions of the leader, but also because of our human nature to objectify. However, we can also think of leadership as holding the consciousness of the potential of the organization and doing for the group what it cannot do for itself as it forms and develops. The group itself may not even be aware of the support that is being provided. And leadership may arise from various people within the organization. As the ownership of the vision becomes widely held and the group matures and develop the ability to self-organize, leadership becomes widely disseminated and emergent. Because we human beings have the capacity for self-awareness, we are differentiated from the starlings. We have the capacity to create murmurations of which we are individually and collectively conscious, and which exist not a mechanism of defense but to benefit the individuals and to dance with other murmurations.

  • Gurmeet Singh Pawar

    Hi Jesse,

    I totally and fully agree with all that you said. You summarize them quite nicely.

    There was a reason why Don Tapscott metaphor caught my eye as a key to something so essential. Not sure if he said in same context as I read it, but do have a feeling that’s what he wanted to convey.

    In case of starling’s murmurations, there are birds which are in front and few always in middle. Now in a way those in middle are always much safer than the ones in the periphery. And another way of looking at it is that the one’s in periphery can also be called the leaders of the group, because they decide the movement of the group. But even with that I am quite sure that none of the birds would feel themselves as the leaders or of some special status among the group. For them they are just another member of the group taking care of one of the aspect of the movement. There is no “ME” in the group.

    But in case of humans we have a disadvantage of having ability to assign status to the different activities of the group. This ability becomes a liability because it creates “ME” in the individual. The collaboration can never take place when there is “ME” in the individuals. For example let’s take two members of the group, one ‘CEO’ and another ‘Sweeper’. Now do we have a feeling of equality in any organization for these two individuals? Everyone associates status with one mere role of CEO and thus creates inequality in the group. The CEO and people only remember themselves being the so called leader, but forget that they are in that role due to virtue of abilities bestowed upon them, and if the same abilities had been bestowed upon the sweeper, the role would have reversed. With this feeling of “ME” how can there be collaboration between a ‘CEO’ and a ‘Sweeper’.
    Till the time the leaders attach status with their roles they keep on creating inequality and thus end up destroying and sincere possibility of collaboration.

    Starlings might be governed by the mechanism designed by nature, but we Humans never allow ourselves the thought that there might be another being that has evolved more than us and also sees us like we humans see birds and understands us as being governed by same nature similarly. We allow living our entire life with the audacity to think that we are the supreme ones because we can control each aspect of our life, which could be so wrong if just the basis of this thinking gets questioned.

    Why I found your post and Don Scott Metaphor relevant because it allowed me to think that maybe we are given consciousness so that we can operate similarly like starlings and performing our roles without an iota of “ME” in the group functioning.

    True collaboration will take place when the ‘CEO” appreciates the thought that he is in no way superior to a ‘Sweeper’ and both of them have been assigned a role with none being more important.

    Love to hear your thought on it, Thank you again.

  • Goparlen

    The elements of collaborative leadership have to be understood and adopted by all leaders. This excellent article fills in a gap in some many leadership books, conferences and articles.

    There are so many areas highlighted in the article on which leaders need to reflect so that they can adjust their strategies.

    Inspirational…

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