Operating Principles for Collective Leadership

Conscious choices on how to develop greater collective leadership

Collective leadership is a style of leadership where multiple individuals exercise their leadership roles within a group – and then the entire group provides leadership to the wider organisation. It’s a fluid and flexible approach to leadership, where roles and resultant accountabilities evolve in response to changing circumstances. As a result, the power of a leadership team practising collective leadership is greater than the sum of the powers of the individual leaders.

If you believe your organisation would benefit from greater collective leadership then how could it be established? One of the most effective ways is to introduce a set of operating principles, where an operating principle is a conscious choice about how an organisation has decided to operate. It’s a conscious choice between two, or more, equally valid alternatives.

In the context of developing organisational leadership they define the choices that have been made in order to develop the chosen style of leadership. Over the years my colleagues and I have observed that organisations that practise collective leadership operate to a set of operating principles that cover:

  1. Selection.
  2. Collaboration.
  3. Assignment, not position.
  4. Using the strong to strengthen the weak.
  5. Learning from shared experiences.
  6. Aligned rewards.
  7. Improving the collective.

It’s important to note that these are not the principles of collective leadership (which are covered in a separate post entitled Are You Practising Collective Leadership), but the principles by which an organisation needs to operate in order to create the conditions for collective leadership to become the dominant leadership style.


As it’s difficult, if not impossible, to change peoples’ beliefs, it’s far better to select individuals for leadership positions based upon their beliefs rather than their talents, which can later be developed.

The guiding operating principle is to:

 ‘Select individuals for leadership positions based upon their belief in collective action and accountability, followed by their individual talents and achievements.’

            as opposed to …

‘Select individuals for leadership positions based upon their talents and achievements alone.’ 


Collaboration is not in conflict with competition, provided the competition is seen as coming from outside the organisation. Collaboration is not only about sharing, it’s also about constructively challenging and having difficult conversations with colleagues in the best interests of the organisation as a whole. Groups that collaborate are more fluid and boundaries are more blurred as individual contributions change as circumstances require.

The guiding operating principle is to:

‘Collaborate with colleagues.’

            as opposed to …

‘Act alone.’


Assignment, not position
During his time as CEO at GE, Jack Welch repeatedly reminded his top 750 executives that they were not owned by the business where they worked but by him, and that they were just ‘on loan’. By placing leaders on assignment, he removed the permanency of the position and encouraged a more collegiate and collaborative style of leadership. 

The guiding operating principle here is to:

‘Place leaders on assignment.’

            as opposed to …

‘Place them in permanent positions.’


Using the strong to strengthen the weak
If a group wants to go faster, the performance of the slowest necessary member needs to be improved – or they need to be replaced! Again, in the eyes of Jack Welch, you get the highest-performing members of the group to mentor the weakest members, and furthermore align the bonus of the mentor to the performance improvement of the mentee. Or, to put it another way, get the more able and experienced to accelerate the development of the less able and inexperienced.

The guiding operating principle here is:

‘For the more experienced to be encouraged (and incentivised) to ‘pull’ the less experienced to their full potential.’

            as opposed to …

‘Let the less experienced ‘sink or swim’ on their own.’


Learning from shared experiences
Intelligent, successful people rarely learn from what they are told; they learn from their experiences, particularly when they are taken out of their comfort zone and stretched both intellectually and emotionally. This is known as experiential learning. Individual experiential learning is important, but collective experiential learning of a leadership group is a powerful way of establishing shared insight, understanding and commitment. Furthermore, the collective experiences go further than learning about the subject in hand as they develop shared understanding and appreciation of one another at the human level. 

The guiding principle here is to:

‘Learn through collective experiences.’

            as opposed to …

‘Learn through individual, classroom-based teaching.’


Aligned rewards
While it’s important to hold individuals accountable and reward them accordingly, it’s more important to understand what to hold them accountable for and then reward them accordingly. If it’s the achievement of a collective outcome, then ‘the reward’ should be aligned to this outcome – while recognising each individual’s contribution. 

The guiding principle here is to:

‘Base individual reward on collective achievement.’

            as opposed to …

‘Base reward solely on individual achievement.’


Improving the collective
Collective leadership only works if everyone in the group feels that each individual is both committed and ‘pulling their weight’. If this is not the case – either through commitment or ability – then the membership of the group needs to change. As Jack Welch is quoted as saying “My main job was developing talent. I was a gardener providing water and other nourishment to our top 750 people. Of course, I had to pull out some weeds, too”. The guiding principle here is to:

‘Improve collective performance of the leadership group.’

            as opposed to …

‘Improve the performance of individual leaders.’


An operating principle defines two choices, not one
Note that the above operating principles not only define how the organisation should operate in order to develop collective leadership, they also define how it should not operate. It’s as important – if not more important – to be clear about how an organisation should NOT operate as it is about how it should operate. Defining the equally valid alternative principles, the ‘as opposed to …’, does exactly this. An operating principle therefore defines two choices, not one.


Final thought
The extent to which an organisation practises collective leadership is a choice. It’s a choice that only the senior leadership of an organisation can make. Collective leadership is an organisational capability that can be developed and guided by a set of operating principles, seven of which we have described above.

Why is collective leadership important in today’s increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world? Because without collective leadership there will be no collective strategy, and without a collective strategy an organisation has very little chance of successfully changing its trajectory to one that leads to an improved future.


More reading
The case for greater collective leadership is argued in a post entitled The Case for Greater Collective Leadership and the behaviours of collective leadership are described in a post entitled Are You Practising Collective Leadership.