Nonprofit Quarterly’s winter 2017 edition, “Advancing Critical Conversations: How to Get There from Here.”
The concept of collective leadership is slowly gaining traction in contemporary thinking. This is being driven by increasing complexity, knowledge working, the increase in individualism and decrease in Hofstede’s power distance ratio, as postmaterialist values become more prevalent.
Collective leadership recognises that using the gifts, talents, perspectives, and efforts of many is better than assuming one person has all the answers. Creativity is unleashed as people tap into their fullest abilities and capacities. When collective leadership is present, people say, “We have done this ourselves.”
"The wicked leader is he whom the people despise. The good leader is he whom the people revere. The great leader is he of whom the people say, 'We did it ourselves.' "
Many of the daily challenges we face are not simple and don’t have simple solutions and knowledge workers are increasingly challenged to adapt to emerging situations and problems. Traditional models of leadership highlight the skills and capabilities of an individual, but to effectively address the challenges we face, we need to move beyond a focus on the individual and toward the collective.
When collective leadership is happening, people are internally and externally motivated, working together toward a shared vision within a group and using their unique talents and skills to contribute to the success. There is shared responsibility and decision making, accountability, and authentic engagement. All members are involved in creating the vision and are committed to working to achieve that vision but also requires specific conditions: trust, shared power, transparent and effective communication, accountability, and shared learning.
A key aspect of collective leadership is that the success depends on the leadership within the entire group rather than the skills of one person. Mary Parker Follett, whom we consider to be the mother of collective leadership, wrote about power with others rather than power over others. This means that rather than having leadership limited to one charismatic person or one powerful organization, leadership is shared among many. This shift from focusing on the skills of any one individual to the capacities, relationships, behaviours, and practices of an entire group (two or more people) makes collective leadership different from other types of leadership and leadership models.
In “Leadership in the Age of Complexity,” Margaret Wheatley and Debbie Frieze discuss a shift from thinking of a leader as a “hero” to thinking of a leader as a “host.” When a leader is the “hero,” he or she is expected to have all the answers, solve all the problems, and fix everything for everyone else. The “hero” is dynamic, charismatic, and brilliant. The problem with this mind-set is that the command-and-control model often uses quick solutions that are created by a few in power (the top of an organizational chart)—and often these solutions are not well suited for the complex issues that we face today. Instead, we need leaders who have the skills to promote shared learning, effective group decision making, reflection, visioning and goal setting, and mutual accountability.