Building Collective Leadership

I was enjoying a stimulating conversation with the CEO of a medium sized and fast growing company about leadership effectiveness. “So what’s happening with your leadership team?” I asked him, sensing an edge of disappointment in his voice.   He reflected for a moment. “Well, they’re all terrific individually: focused, dedicated and competent in their areas; but they sit in their offices all day and don’t talk to each other” he replied.

By Jane Weber

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I thought back to the teams I had been a part of in my varied corporate career. How aware were we of ourselves as a team? For sure we scheduled meetings to discuss goals, ideas, perspectives and achievements, we knew each other. But did we see our system – the entity of our team? In other words, were we aware of the dynamics of our system and how those were impacting our capacity to succeed? Could we each see our own part in this emergence and own it, taking personal responsibility there?

In the book Simple Habits for Complex Times, Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston assert that one of these simple habits is seeing systems.

“Teams form into a small, complex adaptive system, each member working and relating and thinking and feeling and influencing the others. Depending on how that goes, you can get spectacular teamwork or a spectacular waste of time and energy.”

In the pressure cooker of deadlines and metrics, how aware are we of self, others, and the system? In truth, in most teams I work with they tell me it feels impossible to slow down enough to even take a look! Being able to see the systems of which we are a part, and using those insights to make leadership interventions is critical. This keeps the system healthy and moving forward and is a huge performance growth edge for most leadership teams.

This competency of thinking and leading from a systems perspective is foundational to our collective leadership approach. This leadership model has been proven to generate organizational success in today’s challenging environment.

Silo Thinking or Systems Thinking?

Being 100% focused on delivering on your line accountabilities is a given necessity. Here’s the growth edge: the systems aware leader is also focused on the whole, taking 100% ownership for that too. An action taken in one part of the business will have a ripple effect across the whole system. In collective leadership we engage in systems thinking. We are deeply aware of the whole – taking ownership for the impact of our decisions. We collaborate to ensure that, as a collective, we are always aligned and on track towards overarching goals.

It sounds simple and obvious, yet silo thinking and behavior are still the norm in most organizations. In many workplace cultures people continue to struggle to collaborate effectively. Everybody is suffering from the impact of this – both personally and, of course, the business results.

We Live In a VUCA World

  • Volatile – change happens rapidly and on a large scale.

  • Uncertain – the future cannot be predicted with any precision.

  • Complex – challenges are complicated by many factors and there are few single causes or solutions.

  • Ambiguous – there is often little clarity on what events mean or what effects they may have.

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Some Key Issues For Leadership

It Is No Longer Possible For One Smart Leader To Have All The Answers

The “hero on the rock” command and control mode of leadership will not cut it for many of today’s leadership challenges. Networks of shared intelligence are increasingly needed to solve complex problems. The ability of a leader to engage in systems thinking, and to harness the collective intelligence, has become critical to success.

The Future Is Emerging Moment By Moment

Yet leaders are so distracted that they mostly do not even notice it. Often the associated disruptions still take many leaders by surprise. Did the taxi industry see Uber coming? Did the hotel industry anticipate AirBNB? More than ever leaders need to be mindful, self-aware, other aware, and systems aware. They need to be able to connect deeply with each other and with what is unfolding, read the system dynamics, and respond with agility.

Our Past Experience And Current Mental Models Will Not Be Sufficient To Solve The Challenges Of The Future

To attain the needed levels of agility and adaptability, leaders must make the mental shift to embracing uncertainty. They need to let go of what they certainly know and be willing to co-lead together in the unknown, leveraging each person’s unique strengths and insights to read the subtle signals of change.

What’s Needed Is An Extremely Agile, Organic And Systemic Way Of Leading

Nature abounds in examples of how to do this. We like the example of the flock of geese. Geese are naturals at systemic leadership. They fly in a V formation and, as a collective, sense who needs to be in the front at any point in time: the toughest spot, pointing direction and taking all the head wind.

If, at a particular moment, a different strength is needed at the front, (or in the second row, the middle or the back) the geese shift and re-pattern their system organically. They move forward or back according to the collectively sensed needs of the whole and the future that is emerging. In this lead and follow, follow and lead paradigm, there is no place for ego or standing on hierarchy. Whatever your order is in the flight pattern, you have a vital role to play in the achievement of shared goals together.

Collective leadership is founded on trust, allowing each member to take the lead at the appropriate time, contributing a particular talent or strength to meet the needs of the moment. This is an extremely organic, agile and systems aware mode of leading together that can take a team to its potential.

How would it be if your leadership team knew how to fly in formation, just like the geese?

The Creative Intelligence Of The Whole Has A Different Quality From The Sum Of The Parts

Systems theory describes “emergence” – a quality that emerges from the individual parts that is other than the sum of its parts. For example, you could study the properties of hydrogen and oxygen forever without discovering wetness: put them together and you have the emergence of water (or snow, hail, steam, ice). In human systems what emerges is culture. Collective Leadership leverages the creative intelligence of the whole, which has a different quality from the sum of the parts. In our complex world, it takes the insights, perspectives and diverse talents of the collective to generate the innovation needed to lead us into the emerging future.

The Opportunity Is Here To Be Grasped

In our experience at Leadership Coefficient, when leaders are able to see they are part of a larger whole, and are willing to take ownership at that level, it starts to become possible for a huge shift in behaviour to happen. We have seen this significantly impact collaboration, agility, workplace climate and business results.

In our collective leadership model, leaders develop competencies that enable them to innovate and generate results collectively. This includes how to call on everyone’s participation, leveraging each person’s particular talents and strengths, and working within a shared clarity of purpose. This creates the conditions for teams to perform at their highest potential.

The “What” – And Now How About The “How”?

In this article I have focused on the “what” of collective leadership. In my next article I will focus on the “how” – because (you’ve guessed it) it’s not as easy as it might sound. It doesn’t happen overnight: it is a journey for a team to take together, but the rewards are extraordinary.

To see just one example of the organizational impact of collective leadership, you can read our Case Study ‘A New Model for Organizations’ on how one Dutch insurance company reinvented itself through collective leadership.

Leadership Coefficient offers a unique, innovative Collective Leadership Programme. In our approach leaders know how to generate collective results – how to call on everyone’s participation, working within a shared clarity of purpose.

Collective Leadership is founded on trust, allowing each member to take the lead at the appropriate time, with his or her unique set of talents and perspectives.

Collective leadership leverages the creative intelligence of the whole, far greater than the sum of the parts.


You can find more information on their unique services such as their Leader Being Strength Indicator (LBSI) Assessment Method and their Collective Leadership offerings, or contact them directly.

About the Author

Jane Weber is the Founder of Leadership Coefficient. She has a passion to see leaders fully and authentically expressed, leading from a deep awareness and practice of collective and systems aware leadership.

ArticleVipin Thekk