Neither is collaborative leadership.

There are many different types of leadership, and they all involve working with other people. But they’re not all equally collaborative. And they each have their strong points and their challenges.

The traditional command and control leadership model works fine in some settings. Like in critical emergency situations where the team needs one strong voice to rise above the noise and drive specific action now.  Or in business environments that are relatively static and routine, and where people on the front lines aren’t expected to make on-the-spot decisions that could significantly impact production, sales or customer experience. Or in teams or organizations where the boss is always right.

In many business environments, however, leadership that relies primarily on formal authority isn’t a competitive advantage anymore. It tends to foster fear, encourage siloed behavior, and fuel internal competition for resources and recognition (and of course, competition for more formal authority). It inhibits learning, innovation and risk-taking, and also dampens personal commitment in folks who want to take responsibility for what happens in the organization, but don’t experience the organization’s future as their own. When personal commitment is weak, then execution and accountability become wishful platitudes written on a poster in some corporate hallway.

For most organizations, collaborative leadership is a competitive advantage for a number of reasons:

  • The overwhelming volume and distributed nature of information about what’s going on inside and outside of the organization is just too much for any one leader or team to stay on top of.  The free flow and exchange of data, ideas, opinions and perspectives is critical in order to stay aware of what’s going on and to make good decisions. But when leaders and their teams are competing for scarce resources, recognition and authority, they tend to put a kink in the hose, holding on to vital information in order to maintain or build their perceived power base.
  • Evolving customer expectations of instantaneous and personalized service increasingly requires that front-line employees have more genuine autonomy to make on-the-spot decisions. This isn’t possible when too much decision-making authority is held centrally and every decision must be approved further up the chain of command.
  • The unrelenting pace of disruptive technologies touches almost every aspect of our lives and is constantly creating new opportunities and challenges for organizations. The teams that can collaborate effectively are able to take advantage of new technologies as they emerge, as well as identify opportunities to “invent” new technological solutions that didn’t exist before.
  • Employees are less willing to just punch the clock, even if the money is good. Increasingly, they are expecting and demanding more respect, autonomy, and input into key decisions that impact their lives. They want to be engaged in real and meaningful ways, which requires new levels of collaboration and engagement.

Collaborative leadership doesn’t draw its power from positional authority, fear or coercion (no matter how softly that authority may be pedaled). It’s powered by effective conversations and straight talk that builds relationships, trust and the capacity to mutually influence and learn from one another.

Collaborative leadership is how leaders harness their team’s energy and commitment to reach beyond themselves, their “territories” and their comfort zones to create a different future together.  We see it as a prerequisite for sustained organizational performance.

Collaborative leadership is not always easy. It often requires new skills, new capacity for designing and managing conversations and strengthening relationships.  But it can be learned and cultivated by individuals, teams and entire organizations.

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