We’re all used to a model of where there are leaders and there are followers. There’s the captain, and then there’s the team. We’re so used to seeing a hierarchy of authority that at first, collective leadership might sound like a crazy idea – or at best, a utopian ideal that won’t hold up in the real world. However, organizations around the world are creating high performance by adopting a style of collective leadership – though it might not always look like what you think. 

Leaders at all Levels = High Performance

Organizations with high-performance cultures in many different industries across the world all exhibit one shared characteristic: they have leaders at all levels. There are huge benefits to collective leadership. When we have collective leadership, we’re able to: 

  • Make decisions much more rapidly
  • Adapt to changing needs and the ability to navigate complexity
  • Create more engagement – people feel valued and psychologically safe to take on more responsibility

With the SELF Framework, we see Leaders at all levels as the foundation of all other organizational functioning: Culture, Strategy, & Tactics. All organizations want results, most fall into the trap of focusing on levels that have less impact. Collective Leadership is a powerful element to establish the foundation of high performance.

Collective Leadership vs Having No Hierarchy

Collective leadership is not about whether there’s a hierarchy – that’s a distraction. The focus on abolishing hierarchy is a red herring. What’s really important is whether there are leaders at all levels.

The best definition of Collective Leadership is having leaders at all levels. It’s fine if there’s a hierarchy, but does everyone have a space and a chance to lead? This is what collective leadership really means. It means collectively shouldering the responsibility of moving the organization forward.

Evolve2B Decision Cards

Collective Leadership is all about doing it together as equals. It doesn’t mean we’re all going to lead equally, it does mean that everyone’s going to lead when they have something to contribute. People will step up when they’re the right person because of their skills, their background, or their understanding of the situation. They’ll take responsibility for leading everybody else and the system towards beneficial outcomes.

The Traps of Collective Leadership

Collective Leadership might sound nice, yet even well-intentioned leaders often do not know how to implement it effectively. Here are some of the most common traps.

Trap #1: The Ego Trip

The biggest challenge that we see with developing collective leadership is the ego. Everyone has an ego – there’s nothing wrong with that. But when our ego is dominating, we’re focused on what’s good for us, not what’s good for the collective.

It’s really about whether people are in a state of evolution where they move away from “me thinking” to “we thinking.” Because when we’re in a “we thinking” frame of mind we ask questions like: 

  • What’s going to best serve this situation? 
  • Should I take control and lead now, or is it better to yield control, share power, and give somebody else a space to lead? 
  • What would be most beneficial, not just in the short term, but in the long term as well?

We call this Evolutionary Leadership, the choice to evolve oneself and the capabilities to evolve an organization. This a a type of leadership that has a dissolved ego with a transmission to transform everything around them, building other leaders and the ability to move the organization forward towards high performance, this is the power of conscious leadership.

Trap #2: No Time for Learning

The other trap with Collective Leadership is not having a learning culture. Without a learning culture, people are focused on short-term results and just getting things done. When we’re focused on getting things done in the short term, we’re always going to route decisions to the most competent, most knowledgeable person. This means there isn’t space for anyone else to learn what they need to learn to become a leader. 

In a learning culture, there is a healthy balance between short-term production and building the capabilities of the system. Collective Leadership requires a more evolved culture system to function properly, people showing up like adults, responsible, motivated, collaborative. We call this Theory Y++, part of our SELF models for high performance.

How to Make Collective Leadership Work

If you are the leader of an organization, there are some essential steps important in order to build a culture of collective leadership effectively.

Key #1: Create Space for People to Lead

The most important thing to understand about how to make collective leadership work is how to create a more evolved culture system. That means that we create space and time for people to develop their leadership. If we don’t make space and time for people to develop as leaders, we’re never going to have collective leadership. 

Key #2: Help Existing Leaders Learn to Share Power

When you introduce collective leadership, it’s important to recognize that the organization already has an existing power structure. There is a set of people who hold power. It’s essential to help those leaders learn how to share their power effectively.

In order to do this, there are some growth requirements. You can’t just tell people, “Hey, share your power now.” That’s the immature approach, and it rarely works. Rather, it’s about helping those leaders learn how to overcome their fear of letting go of control. As a society we have developed a habit of leading through power or as we say “command and control.”  Since the time we were born, this way of leading and getting people to do things has been modeled to us, we do not know another way to lead.

There’s an evolution process needed for leaders to learn how to develop leaders around them and letting go of the command and control habit. 

Key #3: Share Power at the Right Pace

It’s important to give leaders who are sharing power practical tools to share power iteratively and incrementally as they develop people in their leadership capability. It is in the Paradox of Power.

I’ll be very clear: sharing power with people who are not ready to receive that power is not responsible. What we want to do is help develop our staff to learn how to receive the power. That’s really our job as leaders, as Evolutionary Leaders. Help people learn how to use power responsibly by making sure they have the capabilities they need to make a good decision. This provides the psychological safety necessary for those to step into leadership easily.

When people have the context and understanding of organizational alignment, everyone moves in the same direction. Once we set up those conditions, then we can start to share power. We’ll discuss some practical tools to achieve this below.

Key #4: Power-Sharing Tools

There are two tools to support leaders in this journey. The first one is called the Advice Process. It’s an approach to collaborative decision-making to unlock high performance decisions. The basic idea is that the best decisions come from pooling the collective intelligence of the people in the organization. As a leader the best way to get others to use the Advice Process is to model using it for a few months to show people how it’s used.

One of the biggest challenges that leaders face is empowerment. Too much empowerment or too little can challenge staff. The second tool – called The SHIFT314 Decision Cards – solves this problem. 

Evolve2B Decision Cards

Decision Cards allow leaders to share power iteratively and incrementally. It’s a tool that lets you have a conversation with the people around you to determine what level of power-sharing makes sense. It’s unique to the moment, for that individual, for this decision. It’s a very precise way to start moving on this journey towards sharing power, which is how we develop collective leadership.

Final Thoughts

Collective Leadership is one part of moving from a traditional organization to an Evolutionary organization: a more adaptable, higher-performance organizational system.

What we’ve been sharing here is one part of the SHIFT314 Evolutionary Leadership Framework or SELF™ framework, which provides a holistic framework for understanding how to take an organizational system on the journey to create Collective Leadership.