Collaborative Leadership

Back in February 2016 I posted a blog titled Where is Leadership Going? In it I was tracking the history of leadership styles from the 1970’s to the time of writing and speculating on where leadership style was heading out into the 21st Century. I concluded that Joe Raelin’s Leaderful Practice was where we were going with leadership; collective, concurrent, collaborative, and compassionate; a participative and inclusive model of leadership in which every member is equally free to express and engage. You can access that blog here: Where is Leadership Going?

Four years later I am confident that is exactly where we have now arrived. And the current label for that leadership style is collaborative leadership.


(an extract from Collaborative Leadership offers Greater Outcomes, cited below)

Collaborative leadership is found in the relationships among a group of people who are united in trust, identity and commitment. They have set aside differing agendas to pursue a common vision, one they can call their own. These relationships develop and gain strength over time as group members learn to accept and respect each other.

Collaborative leadership is a shared process in which people pool their abilities and resources to address mutual issues and attain outcomes they could not achieve individually. In this process the leadership gifts of individual participants emerge as needs arise and everyone owns both the process and the outcomes. Every participant becomes a leader.


When thinking about leadership we need to be mindful that for organisations it is a means, not an end. The role of leadership is to inspire, empower and support others to be their best self for the organisation. Effective achievement of organisational purpose is the end and leadership is the principal means. And of course leadership today is deeply rooted in building and maintaining trusting relationships in the workplace.

Collaborative leadership strikes a healthy balance between the relationship aspect and the purposeful aspect of leadership. This is unlike the predominantly purposeful focus of heroic leadership, directive leadership and command and control; leadership styles which have now all been consigned to the dustbin of history.

Collaborative leadership is also unlike the more recent phenomena of servant leadership and host leadership; both of these have the potential for bias towards relationship at the expense of purpose.


Over the last few years, organisations have morphed into much more flexible structures with work being performed across (internal) silo boundaries and between (external) entities and structures. At the same time, workforces have become more casualised, with part-timers, work-from-homers, volunteers and contractors working alongside full-timers in one or more organisations. This is enabled by cloud-based computer services including workflow and document sharing.

Collaborative leadership now resonates for a wide range of organisation types; companies, partnerships, trusts, project-based organisations, and community and service organisations. It also resonates across the generations, including boomers contributing their experience and millennials contributing their technical skills and passion for improving things.

Outcomes of Collaborative Leadership

Collaborative leadership has been shown to provide a wide range of benefits for the organisations that use this leadership style. It enables an organisation to be more flexible in its response to changing conditions because the right people and the right information can be effectively brought to bear on the issue.

Collaborative leadership results in better decision-making and better buy-in to implementing the decision. This is largely because the process of reaching the decision is more inclusive (of people and their ideas) and throws up more options and choices. More people know about what is going on and participate in it, pre-conditioning them to be on board with the outcome for implementation.

The more inclusive nature of communication and decision processes within a trust environment offers personal benefits to participants including improved health and wellbeing, more development opportunities and higher productivity.

It is worth noting, however, that especially in the early stages of building a collaborative culture, communication and decision-making processes are likely to take longer and have potential to generate frustration among some. As trust is built and collaboration is normalised, things will flow more easily.

The Work of Collaborative Leaders

Leadership in a collaborative setting requires leaders to work differently from leaders in more traditional settings.

They work with the group to establish norms for meetings, communications and operations that are grounded in respect, participation and trust.

They model and encourage inclusiveness; ensure that everyone is heard and that people make real connections with one another. Collaborative leaders help the group create and use mechanisms to solicit ideas. They mediate when conflict and disputes arise and maintain collaborative problem solving and decision-making, insisting on and protecting the openness of process.

Collaborative leaders help the group to choose initial projects that are doable, in order to build confidence and demonstrate collaborative success. They push the group towards effective achievement of purpose, help to identify and secure the resources needed to do this, and keep the group focused on what is best for the enterprise overall rather than individual interests.

Personal Characteristics of Collaborative Leaders

Successful collaborative leaders share a set of personal attributes that support their actions. They have an interest both in making a contribution to achieving organisation purpose and to building and maintaining strong personal relationships, within and beyond the organisation. They build bridges rather than burn them.

Their world view is broad, seeing forward into future opportunities and seeing the present from multiple stakeholder perspectives. They work across silos and break down walls.

Good collaborative leaders yield control to others and use their motivational skills to support the efforts of others. They freely distribute information to others rather than holding it as a source of power.

They generally have strong cognitive capability useful across many situations including abilities in relationship building, strategic thinking, analysis, and the motivation of others.

Successful collaborative leaders are adaptive to different contexts, including culture, language and expectations. They create a trusting atmosphere that enables others to take risks and innovate. They are comfortable with conflict and will use it constructively where it occurs.

They understand mutuality and the value of win-win solutions.

Skills of Collaborative Leaders

The skills for successful collaborative leadership are teachable and should form the core of leadership development for those adopting a collaborative leadership style.

Collaborative leaders are skilful in self-awareness; understanding and working with their own strengths and weaknesses, and in reflective practice through which they monitor and modify their leadership activity.

They are practised listeners, able to draw out and ‘hear’ the input from others. The skills of empathy help them engender trust and bring out the best in others.

Facilitation skills are core to their leadership practice; maintaining focus on issues rather than people (often through extensive use of whiteboards, flipcharts and post-it notes), flexing between leading and following in order to enable others to occupy centre stage; and clear verbal communication, including use of questions to explore and clarify the input from others.

Skills of delegation enable responsibility to be taken on by others. Capability to give (and receive) constructive feedback supports successful delegation and the development of others.

If you would like to find out more about growing collaborative leadership capability in your organisation call Kyran or Nicky on 0508 ODI ODI or leave a message on our website at Contact Us

References and further reading

Gino, F., Cracking the Code of Sustained Collaboration, in Harvard Business Review, Nov-Dec 2019.

Joseph A Raelin, From Leadership-as-Practice to Leaderful Practice, in Leadership, Vol.7, No2, 2011 (Sage Publications Ltd, 2011).

10 Collaborative Leadership Characteristics,, downloaded 21 Jan 2020

Collaborative Leadership,, downloaded 21 Jan 2020.

Collaborative Leadership offers Greater Outcomes,, downloaded 21 Jan 2020.

Collaborative Leadership – A White Paper, Oxford Leadership, 2016, downloaded 20 Jan 2020,