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February 19, 2007 » 1:57 pm

What is Collective Leadership?

One of the reasons I joined the board of the Leadership Learning Community (LLC) is that leadership and collaboration are closely related. But what exactly is the nature of this relationship? That is a question I’ve dutifully ignored for the past four years. Thankfully, the good folks at the LLC have unwittingly encouraged me to get off my lazy butt and think a little bit deeper about this question. Much of our discussion at the Evaluation Learning Circle last month was about Collective Leadership, which is also the theme for the upcoming Creating Space gathering. What the heck is “Collective Leadership“? I’ll try my hand at that one too, but first things first.    (LTZ)

On Leadership    (LU0)

What does it mean to lead? When I think about the word, I envision movement in some direction. It could be shared movement among a group of people, or it could be individual movement (e.g. how you lead your life”). If it’s shared movement towards a bounded goal, then by definition, it’s collaboration.    (LU1)

There are many ways you can create shared movement. You could describe a vision, and encourage people to get there anyway they can. You could start moving in that direction yourself, and hope that others follow your example. Or you could pull people along, kicking and screaming. All of these are forms of leadership.    (LU2)

The word, “leader,” implies the existence of a “follower,” which suggests a power relationship. However, leadership is a role, not a title. Roles can be shared, and they can be reversed, depending on the context. They can be pre-assigned, and they can emerge.    (LU3)

People often assume that collaboration implies shared leadership. This is incorrect. Take dancing. Dancing almost always necessitates a single leader. The only exception I know of is contact improvisation (first explained to me by Brad Neuberg), although I welcome other counterexamples from people who actually know how to dance.    (LU4)

The single leader is a pattern in many fields. In cooking, for example, there is almost always one executive chef. The word “chef” is French for “chief.” In music, there is almost always a single leader. Orchestras have conductors, string quartets have first violinists. Even in jazz ensembles, someone always leads, and everyone else riffs off that person.    (LU5)

In rowing, you have the coxswain, who is responsible for navigating the boat and keeping the rowers in sync. Even though the coxswain does not physically contribute to the movement of the boat, the coxswain always trains with the rest of the rowers. Why? Trust and respect. If the coxswain did not participate in the training, the rest of the crew would not accept him or her as a member of the team, much less the leader.    (LU6)

On Collective Leadership    (LU7)

What about driving? Would you want multiple people driving a car at the same time? I sure as heck wouldn’t.    (LU8)

Is the driver a leader? To the extent that he or she is moving the passengers in some shared direction, absolutely. But the driver is not necessarily the only person determining where to go. Who decided on the destination? Who is telling the driver how to get there?    (LU9)

All of these roles are legitimate leadership roles, and some of these could very well be shared among multiple people. Are they better when shared? That depends.    (LUA)

There are two factors that help us think through this question. The first is the boundedness of the goal. When you must achieve your goal very quickly, you don’t necessarily have time to gain consensus on an issue. In these situations, having a single leader can be more efficient.    (LUB)

The second factor is the wickedness of the problem. When Jeff Conklin describes Wicked Problems, he often shows people this chart:    (LUC)

http://www.cognexus.org/4660c8d0.gif    (LUD)

In the collaborative design process, there are people who ponder the problem first, and there are people who immediately dive into the solution. Neither is wrong. In fact, when problems are so complex (wicked), you don’t even know what the exact problem is, then you need to attack the problem both ways. Our traditional notion of efficiency is no longer an option. Because we need to attack these kinds of problems in multiple ways, there are multiple opportunities for leadership. More importantly, there must be a shared vision for the end state, even if the path for reaching that end state is not universally shared.    (LUE)

For more thoughts on Collective Leadership, see my post, “Dumbells and Collective Intelligence.”    (LUF)

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