It’s been a great pleasure the last few days to be in the throngs enjoying the Edinburgh Festival. Established in 1947, the Festival was created to “to provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit” through the transformative power of the arts. At a time when it’s all-too-easy to focus on the destructive and deluded behaviour of leaders, nations and organisations, the inspiration of dancers, actors, musicians, improvisers, poets and jugglers brings a welcome balance.

Another source of optimism is my observation that the nature of leadership is slowly changing. This comes from developments in research plus my own on-the-ground experience as a consultant working in international banks, energy companies and government agencies. Keith Grint and Clare Holt, researchers at Warwick Business School, define contemporary leadership as:

“The art of engaging a community in facing up to complex collective problems.”

More and more leaders I meet are consciously evolving a more participatory, inclusive approach. From our conversations, I understand that the relationships forged and the results generated from fully engaging a community of stakeholders—whether an intact team, a project team or a network of practitioners—really stand the test of time.

The challenge of collective leadership

Despite this new approach to leadership having the potential to be the “universal future”, Grint and Holt also highlight the challenges. Partnerships are often paralysed into inaction and many leaders still operate on the basis of “command-and-control” despite its unpopularity. In my consulting work, I am also aware of theses pitfalls:

  • If roles are not clearly defined, it’s possible that people will engage in more “social loafing” and not pull their weight as they would in a more traditional, hierarchical structure.
  • If there is no mechanism for resolving disputes, these could be left to fester if leaders feel unable to enforce decisions.
  • If the collective gets to work but it’s unclear who holds the overall responsibility for results, this could undermine the whole enterprise.

Collective leadership is about a leader actively engaging a group of stakeholders to think and work together. They might develop a strategy, resolve an operational problem or identify a consensual future direction. The essence of distributed leadership is to access the collective intelligence that is already present in the system—and to apply it to whatever complex, collective issue is at stake. Each stakeholder has a piece of the puzzle to contribute, if they are given a chance to participate.

The enablers of collective leadership

There are many enablers of this shift towards collective leadership. These include:

  • An open-minded leader whose appetite to achieve extraordinary results is greater than their sense of self-importance.
  • (Somewhat paradoxically) even clearer lines of decision-making authority than in a traditional hierarchical set-up. The formal leader often remains the single point of accountability for the co-created outcome.
  • An expanded capacity for productive, and at times testy, dialogue. Dissenting voices are essential to burn off the dross of poor decisions and shine a light on leadership blind-spots.

Given these challenges, no wonder that a collective leadership approach is less mainstream and more marginal at the moment. The momentum is, however, gathering…

The choreography of leadership

Another enabler of collective leadership is to find a strong conceptual metaphor as a guide for action. Back at the Edinburgh Festival, I enjoyed conversations with Alison Williams, one of the authors of Bite – Recipes for Remarkable Research (see the link below for a free download). Alison explained how she and her fellow researchers experienced a breakthrough in their joint project when they hit upon the idea of writing up a cookbook. It brought a practical focus to how to carry out innovative research—and made it fun!

With the idea of a powerful metaphor in mind, I went to watch Sweet Mambo, a dance theatre show by the award-winning German choreographer Pina Bausch. Despite her untimely death at the age of 68 in 2009, the dance company, Tanztheater Wuppertal, of which Pina Bausch became the leader in 1973, lives on.

In the programme for the show, the dance writer Graham Watts describes how Pina Bausch worked with her team of dancers to develop her co-productions, including her work World Cities. What follows is a description of collective leadership in action. Watts writes:

“The process was similar for each piece. The dancers would explore the city, gathering thoughts and observations, often prompted by questions that Bausch would pose to them, from the obvious (‘What do you like about Rome?’) to the less so (‘consider it from a mouse’s point of view’).

“In due course all these experiences would be brought together in the studio, representing many hours of ideas; by some alchemy Bausch would decide what to use, and then set about moulding all the chosen elements into a final shape…. Only towards the end of the development phase would everything be brought together – and all under Bausch’s final control.”

Each dancer’s experience mattered. Everyone was encouraged to participate. The richness of the co-creation arose out of multiple perspectives and experiences. And there was a choreographer who, with her eye on the whole, retained responsibility for bringing it all together.

When leaders see themselves—and act—more as choreographers and less as commanders, the dynamics really shift. When people are energised, engaged and invited to contribute, they give their most creative ideas, their most insightful thinking and their best energy. When leaders include their whole team and other stakeholders in developing the vision, operationalizing the strategy or even agreeing cuts to the budgets, there’s a pulse in the room that a leader would never experience by simply telling others what to do. With collective leadership, as demonstrated by Pina Bausch, the show definitely goes on.

For reflection

  • How does this metaphor of collective leadership work for you? What other metaphors come to mind?
  • Who could you include at your next meeting – someone whom you wouldn’t typically include but who may have a powerful contribution to make?
  • What unexpected question might you ask the people around you to engage their creativity (your equivalent of ‘consider Rome from a mouse’s point of view’)?
Related links

To download Bite – Receipes for Remarkable Research as an Open Access e-book:

To find out more about Pina Bausch, theatre dance and Tanztheater Wuppertal:

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