This post explores how a new approach to leadership is emerging.

It is concerned not with the single heroic leader but with leaders thinking and talking together to achieve results they never could working alone.

I was recently part of the faculty team for the 2014 Leadership for Collective Intelligence (LCI) programme. This is a cutting edge programme for senior executives who want to expand their capacity to lead in complex, uncertain and critical situations.

My colleague Bill Isaacs, who is the founder of the niche consultancy Dialogos, created the LCI 20 years ago. Bill is the author of the seminal text, Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together. He co-founded the Organizational Learning Center at MIT and is a Senior Lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

The LCI programme attracts high calibre leaders from all corners of the globe, including from government agencies, international development organizations, NGOs and FTSE 100 companies. With such a rich mix, insights seem to emerge seamlessly. Here I want to share with you three key realisations about leadership I’ve had as a result of being on this pioneering programme.

1. Connectivity is key

As a group, we spent 4 weeks together over a period of 8 months. When we meet, phones are put away, screens are switched off and our chairs are placed in a circle. Securing absorbed attention is the essence of productive dialogue, as Hugh Pidgeon of Ashridge Business School commented on an earlier post I wrote.

A circle of chairs is emblematic of collective leadership. Each person’s voice matters. Everyone has a piece of the puzzle. Fresh insights emerge out of the co-created space. In one dialogue, we explored how courage is a quality that we all have. We don’t need to acquire it; we just need to access it. Hearing how others found ways to lead in the face of fear, including in a near death experience, put my own challenges into perspective.

I could also find myself in the stories others told about the times they felt unable to deal with the risks involved. As a result, I felt less inadequate and more human in my foiled attempts to lead when the odds were stacked against me. Such companionship is invaluable. Somewhat paradoxically, it puts steel in my spine ready for the next leadership challenge I face.

2. Co-creation is where the leverage is

In traditional models of leadership, the person in charge usually has the last – and first – word on what happens. In this new model of leadership, influence is much more fluid. The illusion of control is replaced by embracing the reality that co-produced ideas are the ones that stick.

After the first session of the LCI, where the faculty takes more of the lead, the participants design and facilitate the “check-ins” at subsequent sessions. They choose the poem, the video clip or the question to get the conversation going at the start of the day.

I’m often struck by how participants appear to be more attuned to the heartbeat of the group than us facilitators. At this last session, we had a check-in that explored how we approached getting enough rest and restoration. It was a hot topic amongst a group of high-performing, high-energy leaders. I gained some valuable tips that I may never have come across had I not participated in that collective conversation.

After being shown the way, participants also lead the dialogue-and-reflection sessions we hold at the end of the day. Their choice of topic is typically exactly what the group needs to deepen its learning. As the faculty gives up more and more of its “control”, so more and more collective creativity comes in.

At our last session, one dialogue focused on to what extent we led to meet others’ expectations vs. what we feel called to do. It was a fascinating exploration of how challenging it can be to be authentic in a corporate setting despite our best intentions. I came away from our conversation inspired by the insights that emerged.

3. Diversity activates collective wisdom

Our differences do not have to create divisions. Distinct perspectives are the lifeblood of a generative dialogue. The challenge is to have a strong enough “container” or holding environment so that no one gets burnt from the creative sparks. At the heart of this new approach to leadership is the challenge of accessing the collective intelligence that is always there in our midst.

“It’s as if we’ve been programmed to be collectively smart”, writes James Surowiecki in his 2004 book The Wisdom of Crowds. In some cases, groups are remarkably intelligent and are often smarter than the smartest people in them. Three conditions need to be met, however, for a group to be collectively intelligent. There needs to be:

  • Diversity of opinion – each person has some specialized information even if it’s just his or her own particular interpretation of the known facts.
  • Independence – people are able to draw on local knowledge and bring a unique perspective to bear.
  • Intelligent aggregation – there needs to be a process, such as a whole group dialogue, for turning individuals’ opinions into a collective decision, joint strategy or co-created idea.

When these conditions are met, the intelligence of the group can be greater than the sum of it parts. The leader, instead of being the hero, becomes the person who builds the platforms and spaces for people to collaborate, communicate and co-create. When leadership works in this way, we are better equipped to lean into the complex challenges that we collectively face today.

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