The Case for Greater Collective Leadership

Without Collective Leadership an organisation has very little chance of having a collective strategy

The last chapter of our book Beyond Default – Setting Your Organization On A Trajectory To An Improved Future is called It All Starts With Collective Leadership. The reason for this is that without collective leadership an organisation has very little chance of having a collective strategy, and without a collective strategy it has very little chance of successfully changing its trajectory – to one that leads to an improved future.

If the purpose of strategy is to change the trajectory of an organisation, then success depends upon people changing what they do. But it’s unreasonable to expect them to change if they don’t understand the rationale for the change nor are confident that the change will be successful. Understandably they need to be convinced that the intended future warrents the pain of transition. And the principal source of this confidence – or not – comes from their leaders.

If an organisation’s leadership is not perceived to be aligned and committed to the change, confidence will not be established. Importantly, it’s not only what leaders say that instills confidence, it’s what they do and how they behave. If they act collectively as one, use the same language and exercise judgement based upon the same criteria, then it will be evident they are aligned, and thereby exercising collective leadership.

We are talking about an organisation’s leaders having collective ownership of, and accountability for, the outcomes and activities that constitute strategy. Our belief is that an organisation is more likely to have a collective strategy – as opposed to multiple, possibly conflicting, strategies – if collective leadership is in place. But what does collective leadership really mean, and how does it differ from other forms of leadership?

Collective leadership is where multiple individuals exercise their leadership roles within a group – and then the entire group provides leadership to the wider organisation. What’s more, 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 collective leadership is greater than the sum of the powers of the individual leaders. Collective leadership is where the given roles and functions are, intentionally, broadly defined and the contribution that individual leaders make evolves over time in pursuit of a common purpose.

A key aspect of collective leadership is collective accountability – where the outcomes of decisions and actions are felt by every leader in equal measure. Individuals who exercise collective leadership tend to have similar values and beliefs, but that’s not to say they need to come from the same social backgrounds, have received the same education or had similar life experiences. While the makeup of the leadership group can be quite diverse, each individual believes in the power of collective thought, action and accountability. 

Executive groups that exercise collective leadership are neither myopic in their outlook, nor parochial in their perspective; they collaborate extensively whilst giving each other constructive feedback and challenge. They are often described as being ‘aligned’ in their decisions and actions, act as one – as opposed to many – and are ‘joined up’ in their thinking and behaviour.

Furthermore, collective leadership should not be confused with consensus leadership – where group members agree to support a decision in the best interests of the whole, even if it is not the ‘favourite’ of each individual.


Collective leadership versus individual leadership
Traditional thinking about leadership is based on the characteristics of the individual leader. Often-cited examples of successful leaders include Steve Jobs of Apple, Bill Gates of Microsoft, Jeff Bezos of Amazon and Jack Welch of GE. While these individuals have undoubtedly been successful, there are many others who have been much less so. This model of leadership, where a larger-than-life individual leads the organisation and others follow, is very ‘heroic’ in style and one that is still the default in many organisations today.

It’s a style of leadership that is emulated by many aspiring junior executives and actively encouraged through incentives and resulting rewards. The model is not only outdated in today’s increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world, but also fosters the erroneous belief that organisational leadership is about the individual, not the contribution that a group of individuals can collectively achieve.

Furthermore, the thinking is predicated on the notion that there can be only one leader, who must take all the tough decisions and live with the consequences – for which that individual is handsomely rewarded. For many, the model is so strong that it drives the behaviour of the rest of the organisation, particularly the aspiring leaders who believe that what they observe is how successful leaders should behave. Unfortunately, this behaviour all too frequently leads to divisional and functional strategies that are developed with little or no consultation between, or regard for, colleagues in other parts of the organisation. These strategies are often myopic, focused on maximising short-term results with little regard for the future they’ll bring for the organisation as a whole. As a result, the organisation ends up with not one strategy, but multiple strategies, each focused on achieving different outcomes. At best, they might have some degree of alignment; at worst, they are in conflict as they end up pulling the organisation in different directions. The best strategy for an organisation is very rarely the sum of a diverse set of individual strategies.


Final thought
There is nothing fundamentally wrong with individual leadership. In fact it’s an important prerequisite for collective leadership. Furthermore, collective leadership is not an alternative to individual leadership. It’s a model of leadership that takes individual leadership to the next – collective – level. Greater collective leadership is particually important in today’s increasingly VUCA world, as 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 behaviours of collective leadership are described in a post entitled Are You Practising Collective Leadership and the principles by which an organisation needs to operate in order to create the conditions for collective leadership are covered in Operating Principles for Collective Leadership.