Collaborative leadership part 3

This is the third article in our series about Collaborative forms of leadership. The first, published last December, introduced the subject generally. The second article, published in the Spring, looked at two critical aspects - achieving commonality of purpose; and integration of cross-boundary processes.

This article summarises two further aspects – collaborative motivation; and other aspects of consensus building – processes, skills and techniques supporting commonality of purpose.


To summarise the story so far, until recently, studies, commentaries, and models of leadership have focused on how leadership applies within the context of a unitary, authority-based organisation.

There exist, however, important circumstances requiring leadership, where the context is not unitary, and where authority is weak or non-existent. These include inter-organisational collaboration between two or more independent organisations; peer group collaboration within a single organisation; and integrating operations within an organisation that has ossified into ‘silos’.

In these circumstances, which are increasingly relevant with high-level promotion, special, different leadership skills are needed. These skills we have called “collaborative leadership”.

Collaborative motivation
A culture of service partnership will need to be established. This will involve a series of relationships, whereby team-leaders understand that each team is like a link in a chain, coupled to at least two other teams, typically upstream and downstream. These service partner relationships will be valued as critically important within the value-adding process. They will be promoted by -

  • establishing and rewarding boundary spanning leadership skills;
  • removing departmental limits to responsibilities, and, where possible, substituting cross-functional teams responsible for entire processes
  • recognition for effective team working assessed in performance reviews and regular internal customer feedback
  • rewarding team performance

The concept of internal customers is a powerful part of the service partnership culture. Value-adding chains start deep within organisations, drawing on the skills and professionalism of people who may never come face to face with a paying customer. This can give rise to a “back-office” mentality, where standards are seen to be less critical than with customer-facing staff, where lapses can have an immediately obvious effect. However, if everyone takes the view that he or she has customers, and that these customers, be they internal or external, must be served with the same diligence and reliability, transformations in overall service standards are possible. People in the chain will be imbued, rightly, with a sense of importance, and this is highly motivating. What they do makes a difference; and this should be recognised.

Consensus Building
Good collaborative leaders need to -

  • communicate and influence well;
  • nurture rapport and respect;
  • gain a reputation for reliability and trustworthiness;
  • build long-term relationships.

Communicating and influencing
Skills in communication and influencing are critical in conditions of low or no authority. In the absence of authority – the ability to “tell” – a leader must be able to persuade or otherwise influence others’ behaviour and choices. At the individual or face-to-face level, there are a number of models and “tool-boxes”, which can be used to train leaders in these skills. They usually use a discovery of a leader’s own communication and influencing preferences as a starting point, moving on to show how to gain insights into the preferences of others, and how to adapt the leader’s own style to make him or her more persuasive. The important point is that these skills can be taught and learned by leaders in order to improve their personal effectiveness.

At the group and organisational levels, an analysis of stakeholder power as the basis for a planned influencing campaign is more likely to meet with success than a piece-meal approach. Again, there are several models and analytical tools available, regularly and powerfully used by organisations such as lobbying and interest groups, and marketers. They work well in the context of corporate influencing.

Rapport and respect Collaborative leaders need to establish rapport on a personal level with all those stakeholders who are needed to make a contribution to the overall effort. Their code of behaviour is based on respect for others and themselves, and they are careful to show this during all engagement with others. This places emphasis and new value on certain styles such as coaching, mentoring, consensus building, consultation and objective alignment. They are the skills of the diplomat, the mediator, the win-win negotiator, and the conflict resolver. Visioning is of critical importance – independent contributors need to be able to envisage the prizes that only good collaboration can bring. It also implies that certain other styles will be less than effective – even counter-productive. Controlling styles, those that might be liable to impatient focus on task functions, or over-competitive attitudes are unlikely to be effective in this context.

Reputation for reliability
Reliability is the collaborative leader’s cardinal virtue. This is nothing more than doing what you say you will do, never letting people down or not delivering on promises. On those occasions when force majeure intervenes to prevent this, collaborative leaders share the problem with those who will be affected, strive to minimise detriment and deliver as soon as a solution is to hand. From this, eventually, will grow a positive reputation – the leader will have a name for being reliable, and therefore trustworthy.

Build long-term relationships
Trust makes it possible for potential partners to collaborate with confidence. They can be persuaded to collaborate where they would otherwise not, losing opportunities for mutual benefit. Trust is helped by forging personal relationships with leaders and stakeholders through respect and recognition, but also by specific things such as doing favours, and helping out in times of need. They resist temptation to take opportunistic advantage of a weakness in the other party’s position. This foray away from “win-win” into “zero-sum” behaviour, however attractive in the short term, is likely to destroy any possibility of collaborative response in the future. The implications of such a doctrine are immense in the field of negotiating. The old win-lose models are rejected in favour of the long-term, trust-based, join-destiny assumptions of collaborative negotiation. These new forms can be taught and learned.

Collaborative leaders can move into this crucial virtuous circle by high levels of awareness and self-discipline. They know that their reputation for reliability and trustworthiness is the most precious thing they possess. Reputations and corporate value take years to build, but can be critically damaged by a single weak move….as Volkswagen may currently be noticing.

© Peter Saxton

Autumn 2015.