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Collective Leadership Is the Best Way to Win

Today’s complexity requires integrating multiple perspectives, skills, and discipline. No one has all the answers. Collective Leadership is the best way to lead.

By Gustavo Razzetti

July 10, 2019

Leading is not a solo sport

“Individually, we are one drop. Together, we are an ocean.” — Ryunosuke Satoro

Leadership is scarce. Now more than ever. Organizations worry about succeeding in a complex world. Only 14% of CEOs say they have the right talent to win in the digital era.

Having a limited talent pool of leaders is part of the problem. But the root cause is more profound. The way companies approach leadership is wrong.

The world has evolved, and so should leadership models. One person can’t have all the knowledge needed to make decisions. Solving complex problems requires a diverse variety of skill sets and mindsets. Leadership must become a team sport.

Collaborative leadership is the best way to win. Hyper-collaboration increases engagement, innovation, and profit margins.

Leadership is not a solo sport. If your organization wants to win in the digital era, all your employees must lead as one.

The Leadership Shift

Collective leadership is no longer a choice. Everyone has the ability and responsibility to lead. New opportunities and solutions can come from anywhere, and anyone in the organization.

Shift from an individual to a collective approach to leadership.

Instead of ‘developing leaders,’ organizations must build ‘collective leadership’ capacity.

Leaders are no longer heroes, but hosts. As Margaret Wheatley explains, the heroic mindset is limiting. We expect leaders to have all the answers, solve all the issues, and fix everything for everyone else. One hero alone can’t solve every complex problem their companies face.

In Leadership in the Age of Complexity, Wheatley suggests that we need hosts as leaders. People who can promote shared learning, effective decision making, reflection, purpose setting, and mutual accountability.

We need a much more participative, more collaborative, more democratic approach to leadership.

The idea of collective leadership challenges traditional notions. True agility requires organizations to increase their leadership capacity at all levels. A group of people or networks should be the source of leadership — not one individual.

Organizations need to get people to work together effectively “as one.”

As James Quigley, CEO Emeritus, Deloitte U.S. wrote:

“The timeless challenge of leadership is to bring together a group of diverse individuals and create an environment where they will work together effectively toward common, shared goals. This is best accomplished through the notion of collective leadership, which brings an organization together as one.”

Collective leadership is about sharing power and influence. It’s about empowering employees more than ever before. Participation makes them feel valued, trusted and motivated. The new currency is no longer ‘intellectual capital,’ but rather ‘social capital.’

Cisco’s collective leadership approach has shifted the focus from ‘superstars’ to ‘super teams.’ It’s C-LEAD model (Collaborate, Learn, Execute, Accelerate, Disrupt) has boosted innovation. It generated Cisco millions of dollars in saving and billions in new business.

Collective leadership has nothing to do with communism, as Wikipedia misleadingly presents it. It’s about being more inclusive — to bring people together to pursue change. And make better decisions informed by diverse sources and perspectives. Leadership becomes a team sport.

Quigley debunks the myth of the two major leadership styles. There are more options than command-and-control or total decentralization.

In his book As One — Individual Action, Collective Power, Quigley lays out eight leadership archetypes that can lead to ‘as one’ collective action. Some may lead to more effective collaboration, depending on the context.

Most entrepreneurs work as “Architects & Builders” — they set the path and let others construct it. Steve Jobs was a “Landlord.” He had a top-down dynamic and dictated the terms of participation by the ‘tenants.’ Conversely, Linux practices a bottom-up approach. A group of autonomous, vocal “Volunteers” innovates under the soft touch of the “Community Organizer.”

There is no single archetype that is optimal for every company. Test before you buy.

The Benefits of Collective Leadership

“Leadership is not a solo sport. If you lead alone, you are not leading.” — D.A. Blankinship

Organizations with strong collective leadership make better decisions. They encourage healthy debates and use data to inform their calls. Thus, being more open to diverse thinking.

According to the Global Leadership Forecast 2018 by EY and DDI, companies with high collective leadership have:

  • Five times higher likelihood of a strong leader bench
  • Twice the rate of “definitely engaged” leaders
  • 50% less likely for leaders to leave
  • Constant learning embedded in the organization
  • The desire to develop each other permeating across all levels

Collective leadership cultures are safe. People feel comfortable to bring up tough issues — by more than twice the levels within the other organizations. Psychological safety increases collaboration. It makes employees unafraid to admit a mistake, ask questions, or share their ideas. Collective leadership promotes participation, not silence.

Collective leadership encourages 360-degree thinking. It invites everyone to contribute regardless of background, seniority, or expertise. By integrating different voices, organizations can view the problem from different perspectives. Organizations that have at least 20% of women in senior roles are 1.4 times more likely to experience sustained, profitable growth.

Collective leadership turns development into a team sport. By providing regular feedback, organizations can create advancement opportunities for all. Companies that score high in collective leadership, use experiential learning to develop leaders. They are three times more like to use stretch assignment to build critical skill and reinforce the culture.

These forces raise the stakes for leaders’ willingness to work as a team too.

As the Global Leadership Forecast 2018 also suggests, well-aligned senior leadership teams do better at:

  • Having high energy on the job
  • Developing people
  • Reacting and adapting to change
  • Building future-focus skills
  • Nurturing the company culture

Collective leadership impacts both the culture and business results.

In 2010, Ardanta, the third-largest insurance group in the Netherlands, suffered from mistrust and increased competition. The CEO implemented a collective leadership program. He broke down silos by promoting autonomy and accountability.

Ardanta increased its productivity by 35 percent. Within a few months, two new sales channels accounted for 13 percent of total sales — all in a highly saturated, competitive market.

Getting Started with Collective Leadership

“Politeness is the poison of collaboration.” — Edwin Land

People are most motivated and productive when they feel trusted to make decisions and develop solutions.

In traditional leadership models, a few executives have the pressure to make all the calls. And those at the bottom just wait and see — they feel underutilized. When organizations distribute responsibility, work becomes more fun and engaging.

Collective leadership is not about lowering the bar. It liberates people’s ability to contribute. Everyone pushes the organization to dream bigger.


Building collective leadership is a cyclical process. It won’t happen overnight. People want to participate more, but they are not used to it. Transforming your organization leadership approach requires time and consistency. People must relearn how to work — formal leaders included. But also they need to see the change is for real.


Collaboration doesn’t mean agreeing all the time. Tensions keep teams alive. Collective leadership is not about consensus, but integrating different points of view. A healthy debate among leaders should be welcome. Teams should align on their purpose and mission but allow members to choose how to get there.


Senior leaders must learn to let go. I hear a lot of CEOs concerned that sharing leadership means losing their power and influence. Indeed. But, the broader organization will benefit from better ideas — participation raises the bar. CEOs perform better when they are challenged rather than obeyed.


Collective leadership works most of the times. However, sometimes, a more directive leadership style might work best. Organizations must read the scenario and adapt their style. Cisco, for example, has a bifurcated approach. The company innovates in a producer-and-creative team archetype. But when Cisco launches a new product, it defines clear hierarchical roles and accountabilities.


Collective leadership is more complicated than most think. People don’t work together by nature — collaboration must be purposefully designed. Organizations must create a delicate balance between hyper-collaboration and individual accountability. Creating that culture is no easy task.


Develop leaders in cohorts. Collective leadership is about building team capability. Team coaching can provide better results than individual coaching. People must learn and practice to solve their problems together, no on their own. Collective leadership development is about complementing skills rather than expecting one person to become good at everything.


Create leadership teams that cut across boundaries. Integrate diverse expertise, backgrounds, generations, genders, and perspectives. Hyper-collaboration requires developing meta-skills such as self-awareness, empathy, and adaptability.

Leadership is all about transforming organizational behavior. Instead of being the hero, invite everyone to lead as one.

What do you think?



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