The Rise of Collective Leadership

Collective Leadership

If you’ve ever spent some time with adults from the American South, you’ll notice the “Yes ma’ams” and “Yes sirs.” Charming at first, the phenomenon can become quite annoying, if you don’t originate from there. Along with their reverence of grits, sweat tea, and rugged individualism, these “Southerners” genuflect in the presence of older adults by deploying the “Yes, ma’ams” and “Yes sirs” (forgive the stereotyping my Southern friends). There is an intrinsic hierarchy in southern culture built around age. The person standing in the line in front of you may be only slightly older than you and perhaps, not as accomplished as you, but they still receive the requisite “Yes, ma’am” in crossing. That’s just how they do it in the South.
In the traditional corporate environment, we learn to recognize our swim lanes and the corporate chain-of-command very early in our tenure. While we may not address the boss with a “sir” or respond to a request for a deliverable with a “yes ma’am,” we understand that there is a pecking order in the office. In this command and control model, the boss has the big picture and the front-line workers accomplish tasks that build toward the big picture. In other words, workers just need to lower their heads and do the jobs they’re asked to do. You may be the most talented person in the office, but talent does not give you carte blanche to challenge leaders willy-nilly… at least not in the prevailing command and control model. If you stray too far above your place in the pecking order, you may lose your head.
Enter collective leadership. Collective leadership is an emerging model in the corporate space that assumes large adaptive changes are best managed by a leadership team instead of a single leader giving the team tasks to accomplish. The leadership cadre and the teams they manage work toward collective goals instead of the completion of individual tasks. This is different than a consensus driven leadership style whereby the majority must agree on the actions and next steps. Rather, this is about common purpose and mission and objectives (tying back to some of my prior articles on culture and purpose). Now, I am not necessarily advocating solely for this new leadership style and approach, but I certainly think it needs to be utilized with much greater frequency. Particularly as the younger generations in the workplace assume leadership roles in organizations, the rise of collective leadership is expected and therefore, inevitable.

Networks Instead of Pyramids
The collective leadership model assumes that everyone – or nearly everyone – is motivated by the accomplishment of shared goals. Interconnected networks in the corporate space collaborate to develop, execute, and evaluate these. Instead of a “hero” at the top of the leadership pyramid setting the vision for the organization and assigning tasks based on the hero’s vision, the collective leadership model encourages all constituents to see their work product as a contribution to the success of the whole. In this model, communication is “in the round” instead of top down. The success of the organization is a byproduct of the diversity of thought and experience and contributions of all stakeholders, not just those of the person commanding at the top of the pyramid. Under this model, setbacks and challenges are shared by everyone in the organization; there is no need for a savior to gallop into the fiery building and save the day.

The collective leadership model affirms that an organization’s stakeholders are capable, trustworthy, and motivated by more than external rewards. Compare this to the command and control model that assumes individual workers have limited capacity and therefore should only be given a task or two to master. When team members feel trusted and respected by their leaders, they take greater pride in the organization and the success of the organization’s goals. Collective leadership helps the individuals in all those interconnected networks realize their potential. I contributed to this corporate milestone. My purpose and passion is sewn into every product I helped produce.

As technologies, corporations, and global interactions become more complex, organizations need leadership approaches that are less dependent on one or two “heroes.” Collective leadership is sustainable leadership, in fact we create depth and breadth in bench strength by leading in such ways. While there will also we be deference to age, experience, and title, the emerging new generations in the workforce will ensure that more and more stakeholders have a place at the table. Is this a bad thing? As long is the work is completed and the mission accomplished, I say, “no ma’am.”