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Business Officer Magazine

Committed to Collective Leadership

Business officers in the Boston area are adopting collective leadership practices within their own universities and reaching out to one another to collaborate.

By Jonathan Raelin, Philip DiChiara, and Joseph Raelin

For many business officers, sharing leadership and decision making is easier said than done. How—and when—do you give up control when you’re the boss? How do you maintain respect if you don’t know all the answers? Practicing collective leadership takes some courage but can offer your institution significant rewards. By taking such an approach, you can become an intermediary of mutual learning and mutual action, working with others to stimulate personal growth and learning. You not only permit but also encourage others to assume leadership roles.

Collective leadership often releases multiple perspectives and out-of-the-box thinking that can foster creative solutions. Consider what happened in fall 2001 when the Boston Consortium for Higher Education faced two challenging questions: How could the business officers in a consortium of area universities and colleges develop a collaborative mind-set and a commitment to collaborative behavior? How could these leaders develop a managerial approach that was collective and inclusive and that promoted leadership in their host organizations and across their network?

Founded in 1996, the consortium develops new and creative ideas that lead to results-oriented collaboration among Boston’s institutions of higher learning, producing improved quality and higher cost savings for them. Business officers participate in processes that pay them back several times over, not just in better solutions, but also in job fulfillment and personal and professional development. Pursuing collective leadership would prove to be a natural for this group.

Incorporating Everyone in Leadership

To expose participants to the concept of collective leadership, the consortium asked Joe Raelin, a leadership professor, to develop an executive development series. He hoped to instill a wide-ranging “perspectives” approach to leadership that would gradually engage participants in their own environments in a work-based application of emerging practices.

Are You Ready for
Collective Leadership?

Answer these six questions to find out.

  1. Are you open to new experiences?
  2. Are you open to feedback about yourself?
  3. Are you willing to provide feedback to others?
  4. Are you willing to change your behavior?
  5. Are you able to reflect critically on your experiences?
  6. Are you receiving support from your work environment?

In his book, Creating Leaderful Organizations, Raelin introduces “leaderful practice,” a form of leadership that is collective, concurrent, collaborative, and compassionate and that can stimulate employees to self-achieve. While some management experts suggest that leaders consult with their followers or that leaders learn to step aside to let others take the reins, Raelin goes further: He believes in advocating a truly mutual model that incorporates everyone in leadership—transforming it from being an individual property into a mutual practice.

The series took the participants through systematic stages that required increasing levels of personal and professional risk. While going through these stages, the participants maintained complete control over the agenda. They were encouraged to create a supportive community—a veritable practice field—that allowed them to talk freely about their fears and failures as well as their hopes and successes. Participants reflected together on the personal leadership experiments that they undertook in their own academic environments. In time, these individuals spawned a second-generation of consortium administrators who were encouraged to experiment with their leadership behaviors in such a way that collective leadership could become contagious within their organizations. Through these efforts, the participating business officers are now adopting collective leadership practices within their own universities and reaching out to one another across their network to achieve a collaborative purpose.

After the creation of the second-generation teams, the original executive team began to reflect on the ingredients that led to the success of this model. The team decided to produce a learning journal that would provide a historical account of their experience and could be used by future consortia in higher education to develop collaborative processes. An organizational researcher conducted a series of surveys using two predominant methods—in-person interviews and online questionnaires. The learning journal addressed five key areas:

  • Selection: How important was the explicit selection of individuals to the success of the group?
  • Facilitation: How effective was the facilitation, and would the group’s outcome have been as successful under a different facilitator?
  • Dynamics: How critical was psychological safety in allowing members to feel open and honest?
  • Leadership: How did the participants’ attitudes about leadership change as a result of their experience?
  • Impact: What was the impact of the experience on members’ professional and personal lives?

Three factors emerged as critical to the experiment’s success: readiness, facilitation, and peer exemplars.

The Effect of Facilitation on Participant Readiness

Effect of Facilitation on Participant Readiness Graph

When selecting members for participation in a collective leadership team, try to begin with individuals who are ready to undertake the experience. At each stage, those who are on the readiness line or in the white area above it will continue with the group. Those who are below the readiness line may feel overwhelmed and drop out. A good facilitator can moderate the amount of readiness needed to advance to the next stage and help a participant who is feeling overwhelmed reach a level of comfort that allows him or her to move forward.

Readiness to Adopt Change

Some business officers are more prepared to adopt change than others. Certainly not all are inclined to shift to a collective model of leadership within a social network.

In this experiment, the consortium’s director decided which business officers within the member universities would be invited to join and participate in the series. He based his decision on two criteria: 1) who appeared to be ready to undertake an experience of this nature, which would require a certain level of trust and openness, and 2) who was most able to integrate the learning from the series into his or her work environment.

According to data from the learning journal, business officers must have six characteristics to be ready for collective leadership. Individuals must be

  • open to new experiences;
  • open to feedback about themselves;
  • willing to provide feedback to others;
  • willing to change personal behavior;
  • able to reflect critically on their experiences; and
  • receiving support from their work environments.

These elements suggest that business officers about to embark on an experiment in collective leadership need to have a moderate to low level of defensiveness and be willing to learn about themselves from the observation of others. Any feedback obtained from others should lead to self-reflection that, in turn, leads to new behavior endorsed by the participant’s organizational environment.

“One or two people can make a group not work by being cynical or uncomfortable, and it was key that this group didn’t have anybody who kept reacting that way,” says one participant.

Facilitation With Finesse

Once a member is ready, the facilitator needs to enhance openness and help actualize it. Although he or she may start with a fair degree of structure, the entire orientation of this style of facilitation is to develop the members’ capacity for collective leadership. The goal of the series was for members to ultimately lead themselves. Because few teams are prepared for this at the outset, the facilitator must ensure that members feel psychologically safe so that they can assume more autonomy.

“The facilitator created a container and then made people feel safe in that space by giving lots of time and opportunity for others to fill this created space,” notes one participant. “He was not afraid of silence and was terrific at being an active listener, allowing huge pauses, which set a pace.” Another participant adds, “[The facilitator] was very talented at providing enough information to spark a discussion without dominating it. He even relinquished what little power he had in the group so it could run itself by the time the later stages came around.”

Peer Exemplars Jumpstart Process

Some business officers possess open personalities, allowing them to take risks and easily open up to others. “Certain people opened up first, which really helped spark the rest of us,” says a participant. These peer exemplars reinforce the psychological safety that is required to permit a free-flowing dialogue.

Peer exemplars assist the facilitator in helping hesitant members understand that taking personal risks in a team environment will not have negative consequences. What is a personal risk? It may be a secret fact or emotion that would ordinarily not be shared. In some cases, it may be divulging a feeling about another team member or the team as a whole.

Exemplars often display exceptional sensitivity toward others and make statements demonstrating empathy and understanding. This increases the readiness of less reluctant members by enhancing their feeling of safety and encouraging them to grow.

A Spectrum of Openness

This series enhanced the sense of personal empowerment by relying on a unique structure that created an environment permitting increasing levels of personal risk. This structure used a developmental approach based on the fundamental assumption that people will open up to one another on a spectrum, from routines that are familiar and recognized as safe, to experiences that are less structured and that allow more self-disclosure and feedback among participants. In the words of one member: “It was an organic progression that grew out of people talking about work and then to our learning by action. I would almost call it unplanned planning.”

The developmental approach was based on three stages.

  1. Perspectives discussion. The participants were assembled to intensely interact with the facilitator and with one another regarding alternative perspectives of leadership theory and practice. Together, participants decided how many and which perspectives to consider. Each one was supported by readings carefully selected to characterize the perspective in question and to provide alternative, even contrary, views. This stimulated thoughtful dialogue and provoked experiments in practice.
  2. Learning team. A learning team emerged from the initial stage’s discussion group, which saw the team evolving to a new level of experience. Having digested some of the alternative theories of leadership, participants experimented with their leadership on the job by using one or more new perspectives. Members recorded their on-the-job experiences in journals to share their experiments with their team members when the learning team next assembled.
  3. Project team. Some participants embarked on a team project of collaborative intercollegiate strategic change. They transitioned into a project team. This stage was based on the theory that there is no greater opportunity for real-time experience and collective reflection on that experience than working together. It is the ultimate test of formulating and practicing a personal model of leadership. During stage two, participants could only provide hearsay on what they tried to accomplish in their work setting. In stage three, participants could directly observe each other as they attempted changes in their personal behavior and in their leadership practices. They were able to provide feedback to one another on such practices as interventions that did not go according to plan, real-time accomplishment of personal learning goals, and differences between what they said they were going to do and what they actually did.

Although the facilitator suggested this developmental sequence, the members, as the ultimate agenda setters, chose when and whether to advance from one stage to the next. The facilitator saw his role as taking the group where it wanted to go. Self-pacing allowed individuals to hold back if they were not ready to move forward. As one member put it, “If you were to speed up the bonding process, it would not have been anywhere near as effective. People might have started to feel manipulated.”

Invent New Ways to Lead

We encourage business officers to attempt similar experiments in collective leadership and to truly collaborate with one another to invent new ways to lead together and to unlock knowledge hidden from view. The synergy that is generated can be economic as well as social.

“I forged connections with colleagues whom I would not ordinarily have had the opportunity to talk with,” says one participant. “It has increased my confidence in my preparation, learning, and judgment. I’m eager to go forward and extend this experience into my work environment.”

Author Bios Jonathan Raelin is a research consultant with The Boston Consortium and a doctoral student in organization and human resources at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Philip DiChiara is the managing director of the Boston Consortium. Joseph Raelin is the Asa Knowles Chair of Practice-Oriented Education at Northeastern University.