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Defining Collaborative Leadership

From John Folk-Williams’s blog Cross Collaborate

Collaborating Group 300x200 Defining Collaborative Leadership

© Maxim Malevich at

What kind of leadership is most effective in building collaboration around public policy issues?

Most discussions of leadership work from the top down. They describe the personal qualities and skills of the leader that inspire staff of an organization or members of a community. Effective leaders of this type are charismatic figures who set the vision, embody the energy and will to realize it, and instill a sense of purpose in others. They are the drivers of success.

For decades, though, a counter-movement has pointed to the importance of collaborative leadership based on a quite different concept, as I’ve written in several previous posts. It begins not with the leader but with the collaborative forms of organization that demand a different type of leadership.

These groups operate on the basis of shared power and management among peers, rather than direction from the top through a hierarchy of authority. In a time when many things feel broken, collaborative networks of organizations and individuals have emerged to meet critical needs. Government with its rigid divisions of authority keeps disappointing while collaborative groups emerge to accomplish what government isn’t doing well or can’t do through its rigid structures.

Collaborative groups are often referred to as self-organizing, based on models drawn from scientific study of complex adaptive systems observed throughout nature. In practice, however – at least in the public policy world, such efforts usually depend on convening by a collaborative leader who organizes a group around a specific issue. Someone has to make the first move, but that doesn’t mean they control the process.

To be most effective, a collaborative policy or problem-solving group has to operate as if its members were peers. I say “as if” because generally there will be great differences in their levels of experience with the issue, the resources at their disposal, technical expertise, and the authority and influence of the agencies they represent. But the point of the process is to take advantage of the creativity of interaction among these diverse perspectives. It is not to emphasize differences, setting one participant apart from another or empowering some over others. That may be the reality outside the collaborative space, but, within it, results depend on mutual respect and reciprocity in the exchange of ideas.

To tap into the problem-potential of a group, each participant has to feel recognized and valued. The contributions of each need to build on one another and evolve into the most inventive and effective solution possible. That permits participants to share the sense of ownership of the product and increase the likelihood of good-faith implementation.

This may sound overly idealistic, but it’s a model that’s been proven to work – sometimes. It’s also a model that’s often undermined by distrust, politics and, above all, the wrong kind of leadership. So what’s the right kind? Practitioners and researchers have answered the question in many ways, but there are a number of common qualities and skills that emerge from their work.

The leader has to be able to identify a problem that needs a collaborative approach. That requires an ability to look beyond the narrow interests of his or her own organization or community to consider potential contributions of other groups – including those with long histories of antagonism. Leaders need the abilities to draw these disparate interests together, share control and credit for the outcome and support the process through great skill in framing issues and facilitating effective dialogue.

Most discussions of effective leadership for collaborative public policy work backward from the characteristics of the process to the personal qualities needed to convene and manage it. Such an approach focuses on specific examples drawn from extensive experience and/or formal research. For example, Russell Linden uses this method quite effectively in Working Across Boundaries: Making Collaboration Work in Government and Nonprofit Organizations Defining Collaborative Leadership

While he describes the specific tasks required of collaborative leaders, he also brings out the personal qualities that inspire participants and help win their trust. Here’s the way he identifies these qualities:

  • Resolute and Driven – always looking for opportunities to collaborate and feeling energized by the process

  • Modest– able to share ownership and credit for success, willing to relax control and participate as a peer

  • Inclusive – uses “pull” by tapping into motivation and inviting participation rather than using personal power to “push” or coerce people to participate

  • Collaborative Mindset – sees connections to larger purposes, such as building a culture of collaboration or working with a group to relate the immediate issue to an overall vision

Such leaders, Linden finds, make excellent conveners and champions of collaboration. They help evoke the less tangible side of the process – the trust and commitment that add to the motivation of trying to satisfying interests and needs. These dimensions of the process, though, do not result from the personal impact of conventional leadership but rather by evoking meaningful and creative participation by the members of a group.

Only the members themselves can produce a solid result. They have to share ownership of the group, stay open to different perspectives and invest their creative energy and commitment. But effective leaders bring them together in the first place, build confidence in the fairness of the effort and embody the values of collaboration through their own participation.


John Folk-Williams

I’m John Folk-Williams, the publisher and editor of Cross Collaborate. Since the early 1980s, I’ve been a practitioner and writer in the field of public policy collaboration, interest-based negotiation, mediation and the involvement of citizens in the decisions that affect their lives. A site like this is itself a collaboration… MORE >

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