Collective Leadership for the Organization – A Guest Blog by Phil LeNir

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When I first heard Phil LeNir, co-founder of our beloved CoachingOurselves methodology, talk about Collective Leadership I was transported straight to my life in Poland, where the term was used by the Politburo.  So, you can imagine, my emotional reaction to the term was less than lukewarm. But when I heard Phil explain the term in the context of organizational development and growth – I became more and more interested. I asked him to transfer his thinking onto paper – and voila – here it is. This piece will sound instinctively familiar and new at the same time to you. Please let us know what you think.


Collective Leadership for the Organization

By Phil LeNir

The first time I experienced collective leadership was during one of my early CoachingOurselves sessions (a form of peer-coaching I developed with Henry Mintzberg). I began running my own peer-coaching sessions with a management team I was responsible for back in 2004.

During one of our sessions we were using a module by Mintzberg to discuss change and our role as change agents for our organization, under the assumption that a middle manager doesn’t just run operations, but also catalyzes change.

At one point during the discussion we honed in on just how much we disliked the arduous project approval processes put in place by our project management office. As software development managers, we felt our ability to innovate got killed by a bureaucratic top heavy gating process, in which we had to prove the margin of profitability of even the smallest innovations we attempted to introduce in our product lines.

In our discussion we realized that individually we had been unable to influence senior management enough to cause the highly independent project management office to loosen up on the processes… They were doing their job of mitigating risk to ensure profitability and that was that.

Then, through the very open and free flowing dialogue that was part of our peer-coaching process, this idea of acting collectively to catalyze change emerged.

In retrospect it seems kind of cheeky really, but we all decided to “independently” make a very loud and serious “complaint” to our respective senior managers about the process in question. We timed our “independent” complaints to occur simultaneously on the day before our respective senior managers were attending their monthly executive level status meeting.

We knew this would likely cause the issue to be tabled during the meeting, and since it would be at the forefront of many of their minds, it would likely cause the senior leadership group to take action and push the project office to loosen up on the process in question.

Collective leadership in action, in the real world of large corporations!

Unfortunately, in some circles collective leadership suffers from a very negative connotation. Wikipedia says, “Collective leadership is considered an ideal form of ruling a communist party, both within and outside a socialist state. Its main task is to distribute powers and functions from the individual to a single group.” Mimicking the way in which a communist party organizes itself is hardly the aspiration of many organizations.

However, the world is evolving, and many large organizations that have implicitly (or even explicitly!) modeled their leadership around the old military command and control model are finding themselves unable to keep up.

And it seems the military is well aware of this, and is moving it’s thinking forward far faster with regards to leadership than many of us in the private sector. The US Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences released a May 2011 report titled A framework for understanding collective leadership: The selective utilization of leader and team expertise within networks.

This very interesting and in-depth report starts by saying that to date, the dominant approach to leadership research assumes that all aspects of the leadership role within a team are embodied by a single individual.

It continues with:

“As the United States Military moves into an era where asymmetric warfare becomes a day-to-day reality, it is critical that the Army leadership strategies be re-evaluated in this new context. A key characteristic of this new environment is that complex, ill-defined problems emerge rapidly requiring an organizational response under high risk conditions where outcomes of action are unclear. These problems conspire to place a unique set of demands on unit leaders. One key demand made by the problems posed in asymmetric warfare is that leaders must operate in a collective fashion. Put more directly, leaders throughout the organization must coordinate and integrate their activities to arrive at an effective resolution of unique, rapidly unfolding, problems. Thus, leadership becomes a collective organizational enterprise as opposed to an individual-level, command and control, phenomenon.”

This sounds remarkably like what many non-military organizations are facing as well… And having leadership become a collective organizational enterprise will be key to dealing with the rapidly evolving competitive environment.

The report goes on to cite a number of studies highlighting the benefits of having multiple, or collective, leaders. They note that simply having multiple leaders, or a top management team, is not sufficient for positive team and organizational outcomes. Rather, it is the sharing of information, collaboration and joint-decision making among leaders that is critical.

To go back to where I started, I personally believe that collective leadership starts with culture, perspectives, world views and the like. And all this can be influenced through learning and development.

And to make a subtle, or perhaps not so subtle plug for the products my organization produces, collective leadership starts through collective leadership development. Consider using the peer-coaching approach my company sells to enhance the collective leadership in your organization.

Good luck with your collective leadership transition!


MarchFifteen is a proud partner of CoachingOurselves and people interested in learning more can contact MarchFifteen Consulting!

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