Collaborative Leadership – Leading Without Authority

Organisations are co-ordinating bodies. They are effective, they achieve their objectives, by ensuring that a number of suitably competent individuals work together in an orchestrated way. The essential internal feature of an organisation is co-operation between its members. Organisations traditionally ensure this happens in a number of ways, including bestowing leaders with authority. Authority is a form of power. Authority ensures control and compliance, and its forms are clearly understood and reliable. Notwithstanding the current fashion for softer skills and techniques, the very knowledge that managers are invested with authority, along with its associated sanctions, is usually enough to allow it to operate quietly, but in the time-honoured way. And when, for example, military organisations have to co-operate with each other over a significant period of time, it is common for them to put in place a supra-organisational command or authority structure in order to make those collaborating organisations work in as unitary a way as possible – in effect as though they comprise a single organisation.

The Paradox of Promotion

Executives often report that the nature of leadership seems to change as promotions push them towards the pinnacles of their organisations. Up to a certain level or rank, specific responsibilities might change and become wider, but leadership issues will usually remain bounded and focussed within the organisation. However, there will often come a point when leaders face problems requiring a different kind of approach. The skills and assumptions that have stood them in such good stead somehow don’t seem appropriate in these new circumstances. If they are inappropriately applied, not only do they not work, they can aggravate matters. Seasoned managers may start to fail and lose confidence. Is this a new manifestation of the Peter Principle – are they hitting limits to their natural competencies – or is something else happening?

As a leader moves closer to the top, focus often shifts from the internal workings of the team or organisation, to an increasingly external perspective. The objects of interest become more about the environment in which the organisation operates, how this is changing, and how the organisation is predicting and reacting to these changes in order to maintain strategic edge. Relationships with other organisations may become a key issue. Such other organisations might include suppliers, client groups, the media, the government, banks, and regulators. In some cases, the best option might involve some kind of alliance with competitors, such a joint venture. The reflective leader might become aware of a certain sense of déjà vu. These new challenges resonate with the challenges to peer group collaboration within a single organisation faced with putting together an integrated cross-departmental initiative; or integrating current operations within a single organisation that has ossified into ‘silos’. This is inter-organisational leadership, and it is different in its nature and requirements from the intra-organisational form in which most leaders will have been schooled. Inter-organisational leaders have to operate in conditions of low or no authority. Relying on unitary authority-based leadership techniques will become inappropriate, leading to a partial result, or even failure. In the absence of authority, there is an overriding need to become skilled in forms of leadership grounded in influencing, and persuasive, consensus-building. If you cannot tell others what to do, you have to be able to persuade them.

Some examples include –

• Peer relations and leadership
• Negotiating skills – making deals and establishing relationships
• Client relationships to achieve repeat business
• Internal collaboration – producing seamless value adding processes that deliver for clients
• Silo busting – getting departmental heads to work together
• Inter-organisational co-operation e.g. joint ventures 
• Achieving safe and harmonious relations with trade unions
• Leading combined and joint military operations
• Merger management
• Managing relations with government
• Managing relations with regulators
• Standing any chance at all of getting a monopoly supplier to do anything it is not inclined to do.

Why should leading without authority be considered so challenging?

Authority is a form of power, whereas persuasion is a form of influencing. Are they so very different? After all, they both seek the same ends – getting an outcome through co-ordinated activity. However, power and influence are different in how they do it.

While authority may be vested in individuals, it is usually drawn from an extraneous source – the law, the company manual, the club rules, the Vatican. Being a form of power, it comes with sanctions available to ensure compliance. In this respect, rewards also imply sanctions because they can be with-held.

Influence, on the other hand, works through the ability to persuade others voluntarily to change their own minds, and can be purely inter-personal in form. Their minds have to be wooed to agree with that of the leader – to form a ‘consensus ad idem’ as the Romans might have said, but didn’t appear to practice very much. It is from this agreement, this newly produced conviction, that the co-ordinated action arises. The persuaded person now believes that in some sense this is the right thing to do.

CapstickSaxton has designed a practical approach and a broad skill set that enable leaders to recognise these different requirements, and, through appropriate application of practice, to succeed in the most challenging of all management situations – leading without authority.




1 How would you attempt to identify situations where the principles of Collaborative Leadership could or should be applied?



2 Identify the key situations, in your current role, in which the principles of collaborative leadership could or should be applied.



3 Describe an example of “The Prisoner’s Dilemma that you have personally experienced. What did you do about it? What was the outcome? Would you approach it differently on a future occasion?


4 How would you check the state of commonality of purpose in an operation to be conducted jointly between two independent organisations?


5 How would you rate your organisation in terms of horizontal process integration? Which aspects would you target for improvement, and why?

6 Attempt to identify where the motivational structures in your organisation could produce perverse incentives acting against collaboration. How would you correct this?

7 How would you rate your influencing/persuasive skills? Can you identify areas where you think these should be improved? How will you achieve this?

© Peter Saxton

April 2012.