Collaborative leadership

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Collaborative leadership is a management practice which is focused on the leadership skills across functional and organizational boundaries. The term started to appear in the mid-1990s in response to the twin trends of the growth in strategic alliances between private corporations and the formation of long term public private partnership contracts to rebuild public infrastructure.

Defining Collaborative Leadership[edit]

In her 1994 Harvard Business Review article "Collaborative Advantage", Rosabeth Moss Kanter talks about leaders who recognize that there are critical business relationships "that cannot be controlled by formal systems but require (a) dense web of interpersonal connections…".[1] And in a book published in that same year Chrislip and Larson looked at the attributes of great civic leaders in communities across the US and found some similar attributes. "Collaboration needs a different kind of leadership; it needs leaders who can safeguard the process, facilitate interaction and patiently deal with high levels of frustration"[2]

In 2013, Harvard Business Review authors Nick Lovegrove and Matthew Thomas (co-founders of The InterSector Project), explore the complex relationship between the business, government and social sectors as it relates to their role in addressing the most pressing challenges facing society -- issues like managing resource constraints, controlling health care costs, training the twenty-first-century workforce, developing and implementing smart-grid and intelligent-urbanization technologies, and stabilizing financial systems to foster sustainable economic growth. Their research suggests that the future of collaborative leadership depends on the ability of leaders to engage and collaborate with the business, government and social sectors (see below for the distinguishing characteristics of such leaders).[3]

Hank Rubin author and President of the Institute of Collaborative Leadership has written "A collaboration is a purposeful relationship in which all parties strategically choose to cooperate in order to accomplish a shared outcome." In his book "Collaborative Leadership: Developing Effective Partnerships for Communities and Schools" Rubin asks "Who is a collaborative leader?" and answers "You are a collaborative leader once you have accepted responsibility for building - or helping to ensure the success of - a heterogeneous team to accomplish a shared purpose . Your tools are (1) the purposeful exercise of your behavior, communication, and organizational resources in order to affect the perspective, beliefs, and behaviors of another person (generally a collaborative partner) to influence that person's relationship with you and your collaborative enterprise and (2) the structure and climate of an environment that supports the collaborative relationship."[4]

David Archer and Alex Cameron in their book Collaborative Leadership: How to succeed in an interconnected world, identify the basic task of the collaborative leader as the delivery of results across boundaries between different organisations. They say "Getting value from difference is at the heart of the collaborative leader's task… they have to learn to share control, and to trust a partner to deliver, even though that partner may operate very differently from themselves."[5]

Key lessons for leaders[edit]

There have been a number of research projects and reviews of key lessons for Collaborative leaders but they all come down to some similar themes.

Nick Lovegrove and Matthew Thomas (co-founders of The InterSector Project) writing for the Harvard Business Review, interviewed over 100 leaders who have demonstrated their ability to engage and collaborate across the business, government and social sectors and found six distinguishing characteristics:[6]

  • Balanced motivations. A desire to create public value no matter where they work, combining their motivations to wield influence (often in government), have social impact (often in nonprofits) and generate wealth (often in business)
  • Transferable skills. A set of distinctive skills valued across sectors, such as quantitative analytics, strategic planning and stakeholder management
  • Contextual intelligence. A deep empathy of the differences within and between sectors, especially those of language, culture and key performance indicators
  • Integrated networks. A set of relationships across sectors to draw on when advancing their careers, building top teams, or convening decision-makers on a particular issue
  • Prepared mind. A willingness to pursue an unconventional career that zigzags across sectors, and the financial readiness to take potential pay cuts from time to time
  • Intellectual thread. Holistic subject matter expertise on a particular intersector issue by understanding it from the perspective of each sector

Madeleine Carter, writing for the Center for Effective Public Policy as part of research project funded by the United States Department of Justice and State Justice Institute, defines five qualities of a collaborative leader:

  • Willingness to take risks
  • Eager listeners
  • Passion for the cause
  • Optimistic about the future
  • Able to share knowledge, power and credit

In a similar way, Archer and Cameron list ten key lessons for a successful collaborative leader:[5]

  • Find the personal motive for collaborating
  • Find ways of simplifying complex situations for your people
  • Prepare for how you are going to handle conflict well in advance
  • Recognize that there are some people or organisations you just can't partner with
  • Have the courage to act for the long term
  • Actively manage the tension between focusing on delivery and on building relationships
  • Invest in strong personal relationships at all levels
  • Inject energy, passion and drive into your leadership style
  • Have the confidence to share the credit generously
  • Continually develop your interpersonal skills, in particular: empathy, patience, tenacity, holding difficult conversations, and coalition building.

Rod Newing writing in a Financial Times supplement special report says "If a collaboration is to be effective, each party must recognise and respect the different culture of the other". And traditional development paths don't prepare leaders well for this "traditional management development, is based on giving potential managers a team of people and a set of resources to control - and success is rewarded with more people and more resources to control. By contrast, collaboration requires managers to achieve success through people and resources outside their control and for this they have had no preparation".

Applications of collaborative leadership[edit]

The need for collaborative leadership is being recognised in more and more areas;

  1. Public Private Partnerships
  2. Global Supply Chains
  3. Civic collaboration to solve complex community problems
  4. On-line collaboration – Linux, Wikipedia etc.
  5. Political collaboration to tackle global issues such as the credit crunch, climate change and terrorism

An Ipsos MORI research report published in 2007 found that relationship management and collaborative leadership were the top two qualities or capabilities that Directors of organisations involved in large business partnerships would have liked to have had more access to when setting up or running a partnership.[7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kanter, Rosabeth Moss (2003). Rosabeth Moss Kanter on the Frontiers of Management. Harvard Business Review (Harvard Business School Press). ISBN 1-59139-323-X. 
  2. ^ Chrislip, David (2002). The Collaborative Leadership Fieldbook - A guide for citizens and civic leaders. Josey Bass. ISBN 0-7879-5719-4. 
  3. ^
  4. ^ Rubin, Hank (2009). Collaborative Leadership: Developing Effective Partnerships for Communities and Schools. Corwin Press. 
  5. ^ a b Archer, David; Cameron, Alex (2008). Collaborative leadership – how to succeed in and interconnected world. Butterworth Heinemann. ISBN 978-0-7506-8705-8. 
  6. ^
  7. ^ "Business Partnerships Survey". Ipsos MORI. 2007. Retrieved 2008-12-01. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Middleton, Julia (2007). Beyond Authority – Leadership in a changing world. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 0-230-50001-3. 
  • Tapscott, Don; Williams, Anthony D (2006). Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything. Atlantic Books. ISBN 1-59184-193-3. 
  • Reffo, Gerry; Wark, Valerie (2014). Leadership PQ: How Political Intelligence Sets Successful Leaders Apart. Kogan Page. ISBN 9780749469603.