Recently I was talking to a senior executive about collaborative leadership and asked him if he thought he was a collaborative leader. He replied yes. So I then asked what he thought he did to be seen as a collaborative leader. His response was interesting. It went something like this – ‘I promote collaboration in all I do. I keep my people informed, treat them with respect and support them when they need help and advice’.

On another occasion speaking to a CEO he said he had been encouraging his direct reports to be collaborative but he was not seeing it and yet they kept telling him they were collaborative. I spoke to each of his direct reports to discover their responses were very similar.

Their gist was ‘We are being collaborative as he is with us, we talk to each other regularly, keeping each other informed and looking after our people’.

In both of the above examples what they described for me was ‘cooperation’ which is very different from collaboration. Therein lies a challenge, cooperation is believed to be synonymous with collaboration. Collaboration is not cooperation nor consensus, it is deeper, broader and more enriching than either cooperation or consensus. It requires us to be not just perspective takers but also perspective seekers. Unfortunately, there still exists a mindset in many leaders that they need to lead from the front, having all the answers and being the font of all information and besides ‘collaboration’ takes too much time in this busy world.

Another major challenge is that silos are still a part of our organisation landscape. This means politics, ‘fake’ cooperation and negative productivity impacts are still alive and well, despite for years knowing the damage done by the silo mentality. Consequently people are not working in an environment that creates positive energy, innovation, inclusiveness and great productivity when leaders more than ever need to capture the knowledge, ideas, energy and full discretionary effort of their people.

For leaders the world has changed – everyone has access to Dr. Google and his many friends. They can now read, see and hear many perspectives very different from their ‘boss’! People now more than ever can and want to think for themselves, and not be stifled by old mindsets carried by their leaders.

A different perspective for leaders is to see collaboration as a way of dealing more effectively with complexity by bringing together a richer diversity of thought enabling us to get things right the first time more often than ever before.

Collaborative Leadership is the capacity to create and develop innovation, new ideas, services and/or products through a diversity of strong healthy relationships with team, organisation, industry, suppliers, clients/customers, contractors, industry and government bodies and potential employees, clients/customers and suppliers. It means:

  •  breaking down silos, developing a structure to support collaboration horizontally across all functions, 
  • seeing beyond ‘my team’,
  • developing collaborative leadership systems to assist our working in teams and groups with all our stakeholders,
  • ensuring people have the capability to work collaboratively,
  • encouraging and supporting their people to have the space to think in the knowledge their contributions will be listened to effectively.

As such Collaborative Leadership allows us to deal with greater complexity than just one individual, one team or one function and encourages, supports and delivers real innovation across the whole organisation.

Collaboration begins with a mindset of others having valuable perspectives that I need to foster and support so they come to light. Once I have listened to all the different perspectives I can then consider and develop a coherence previously unknown. As a leader I still retain my role authority to make decisions so that meetings do not become talkfests, but rather an expression of the energy and power of individual thinking within a  collaborative context that deals with complexity more effectively.

No matter how good I think I am unless others are thinking with me, contributing and owning our shared vision and purpose, I will not be able to bring about transformational change.

Collaborative Leadership is also built on:

  • trust, and requires me to be open, honest, transparent and consistently communicating
  •  diversity, and that means bringing together people of differing levels of capability and perspectives to ensure I break the potential ‘groupthink’ cycle of many teams

Collaborative Leadership through the lens of the Integral Framework helps us clarify that truly collaborative leaders need to:

  • Believe people are capable of thinking for themselves and contributing to better decisions and action – Perspective Mastery
  • Develop skills to give people the opportunity to think for themselves – Capability Mastery
  • Develop and/or use Collaborative Leadership systems to support teams in combining their thinking capacity in a logical, productive manner – Systems Mastery
  • Move to a more collaborative culture understanding what culture currently exists and how to bring about the required change – Cultural Mastery

Above all I need to recognise it all begins with me and unless I really believe my people have the capacity to think for themselves and significantly contribute to our success we will remain trapped in the mediocrity of ‘fake’ cooperation at best.