12 Things Collaborative Leaders Do


Collaborative leaders create communities where people unite around a common purpose and values, working collaboratively to accomplish a shared vision that makes a powerful and positive impact.

Their job is to champion the vision, provide resources and remove roadblocks. How do they do this? Some of these 12 behaviors could describe any leader. But when you look at them altogether, a pattern emerges that is quite different from traditional leaders.

Collaborative Leaders…

1.  Flatten things.

They flatten the traditional hierarchical chain of command and create networks. They also flatten compensation structures so the difference in pay-scale between the top and bottom is not astronomical.

2.  Allow leadership to emerge.

They let go of the need to be in control because they trust in the vision and the people. Roles and responsibilities shift as the nature of the work changes, and leadership emerges according to what is required.

3.  Know the business and the landscape.

Always learning, they are interested in a wide variety of topics. Not only do they understand their business, they keep abreast of events and ideas outside their own area of expertise in order to see trends and possibilities.

4.  Live in the land of curiosity.

Instead of seeking quick answers, they consider the larger picture and long-term implications. They ask good questions that open up possibilities and that help people find their own solutions. They seek information from multiple sources.

5.  Ask for directions when driving.

Not only are they willing to ask for help, they are not afraid to be vulnerable and fully human. They know their limitations and what they don’t know, and they are willing to rely on others for support.

6.  Genuinely care about people.

They respect people as fellow human beings and care about their health and well-being. They connect with people at a personal level, regardless of their role.

7.  Know who they are and where they stand.

They earn respect and trust through the integrity of their character. They hold themselves accountable for the organization and are willing to take a stand and make tough decisions when necessary.

8.  Create an infrastructure for sharing information and learning.

They support an open flow of information and the distribution of power and decision-making. They make full use of all tools to open communication channels, from in-person meetings to creative uses of technology to engage in conversation at a distance.

9.  Demand dialogue.

They bring people together to engage in dialogue around mutual concerns. They provide opportunities to develop cultural awareness and communication skills so people can engage in productive dialogue and creative problem solving.

10.  Expect creative solutions, not compromise.

They are not afraid of conflict. They equip those involved in disagreements to manage it themselves with the mandate to seek creative solutions aligned with the vision that benefit the organization as a whole.

11.  Seek out diversity.

They celebrate differences and use diversity as a strategic advantage. They foster innovation through a diverse workforce and bring people with diverse perspectives together to find creative solutions.

12.  Open boundaries while maintaining separateness.

Not only do they collaborate internally, they collaborate with other organizations. As described by Rosabeth Moss Kanter in The Collaborative Advantage, they partner with suppliers, and even competitors, freely sharing information, while maintaining clear signs of continuing independence for all. In other words, other communities are respected, even when competing, and seen from a bigger picture as part of an even larger community.

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28 comments to 12 Things Collaborative Leaders Do

  • Great post Jesse. We need more leaders to be courageous enough to live out of these traits. We would have better organizations and better communities.

  • Lisa Kuhn Phillips

    excellent yet again, Jesse Lyn. Holistically so true and has been done in an organization. Great lessons learned on followers that still hold to past/live in fear of change and choose not to show vulnerability. Great leaders need great followers supporting the mission above all else/self.

    • Indeed, this has been done in organizations, and quite successfully. One example is the transformation of Cisco in 2001 by CEO John Chambers where he transformed his own leadership style from a “cowboy” mentality and transformed the company from silos to a collaborative approach (described in Harvard Business Review How John Chambers Learned to Collaborate at Cisco). You make some good points on followership as well. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Lisa.

  • I’ve taught leadership and collaboration to middle managers. I emphasize that both are learnable skills and that they are not options to be embraced superficially. In order to get the learners to engage in that proposition we focus on the outcomes and benefits, e.g., as middle managers responsible for operational plans, to get their people to buy into the strategy and implement it successfully they will need to be really good at leadership and collaboration.
    Also, that they will need their mid-manager colleagues who also write operational plans to collaborate cross-functionally in the implementation.

    Hence, collaboration is a productivity tool, not an option.

  • Bob

    This is a simple and great article Jesse!

    I’ve seen a few of these points mentioned before, but one that is consistently missing from leadership advice is outside collaboration.

    I used to work with Coorperatives for several years and quickly realized the power of collaborating with leaders from other organizations. Whether it was best practices, worst practices, or the fact that (best of all) egos were irrelevant because everyone had them.

    If a leader really wants a competitive advantage and isn’t doing this…they need to start TODAY!

    I’ve definitely book marked this page!

    Thanks for sharing!

    • I’m so glad you emphasized this point, Bob. Collaborative leadership is about open systems and open boundaries. It’s contradictory to think you can open boundaries internally and maintain closed boundaries externally. And respect can’t be parceled out. If you respect people, then you respect people, whether they are internal to the organization or external. There are too many communities that are polarized with each other right now. For collaborative leadership to be effective, we need to be thinking both internally and externally.

  • Excellence in a small space Jesse. I’m sharing this with a number of community and human development groups. So often our academic and professionally published works are too cumbersome, too long, and don’t use common language.

    Thank you for sharing.

  • I appreciate your blog. We have much in common. In TO FIND THE WAY OF LOVE, I discuss these qualities as essential for leaders in the ‘New Society.’

    Happy to connect.
    Oliver Deehan

  • Steve Thomas

    Great article Jesse! Thanks for putting into word what I believe is my leadership style. Bringing people together to achieve a common objective is both encouraging and empowering to all those involved. I appreciate your wisdom and insight. I’ll be reading your blogs and following you via twitter. Keep up the great work!

  • Lacee Thomas

    This is a great comprehensive list that really showcases what collaborative leadership takes. It’s awesome to come across leaders like this and hopefully by drawing attention to this more leaders like this will soon emerge.

    • It is awesome to come across leaders like this, Lacee. I have seen many mid-level managers create amazing collaborative teams within hierarchical organizations. Your comment reminds me I might add one more thing to the list of what these leaders do… In this case, they advocate for their team and protect them from unnecessary distractions and unreasonable policies imposed from above. Creating a collaborative team in a hierarchical environment is challenging but not impossible especially when the leader understands their job is to champion the vision, provide resources and remove roadblocks.

  • So true. Thank you for this thoughtful post. I am always struck by how much of this kind of thing is “simply” common sense, and yet how few leaders “get it.”

  • Tim Davis

    I’m a new leader in a new leadership position, so I’ve been reading voraciously to learn how to be effective. This succinctly says so much of what I’ve formulated from my recent studies. Thank you so much for helping to validate that I am indeed on the right track.

    • Glad my post was helpful, Tim. Sounds like you’re off to a great start. Sometimes practice doesn’t go as smoothly as theory. When/if that happens, don’t lose faith. And remember to set up supporting systems to help keep on track. Best wishes.

  • This posting is really constructive and positive. If leaders in organizations would actually do these, we would have more innovative, effective and happier people in our organizations.

  • Hi Jesse,

    I really liked the simplicity of this post. Collaboration can seem like such an overwhelming challenge, but the fundamental principles really make sense. I like that a lot of the points are underpinned by the need to listen, share, find out what your team, your customers and your suppliers think. Asking is certainly the first step and finding like minded people makes sense.

    What would be your big tip for someone who wants to collaborate but has a command and control type of manager?

    • Hi Jeremy, I agree with your analysis of the underpinnings. As for your question about how to collaborate with a command and control type of manager: Collaboration is an agreement between two or more people. Without that agreement, it won’t work. I wouldn’t assume that my manager is locked into command and control, though. I would try to have a discussion where I shared my thoughts about the value of collaboration and specifically what I would like to see happening. It helps to be clear, concrete and specific about exactly what you would like to do – whether it’s to collaborate with your manager on a project or to get approval to set up a collaborative project. Sometimes one successful collaborative venture can start the ball rolling. I have seen managers with a control-oriented style make the shift to a participative style, even though that style is not their innate preference, because they see the value of the results. On the other hand, when it is clear that the environment will never change, one must assess the realities of their situation and decide whether or not they can live with it. Hope these thoughts are helpful.

  • Yes, Jesse, and I would add that the best leaders with whom I have worked demonstrate a quiet confidence, uncommon courage and a conscious commitment to shared vision, values and purpose.

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