Collaborative Leadership

Recently, Margaret (Meg) Wheatley wrote an insightful article called “Leadership in the Age of Complexity: from Hero to Host”. Resurgence Magazine, Winter 2011.

In it she describes the wonderfully classic paradox that in order to gain control, you must cede control.

That concept raises the issue of exactly what “control” is.  Suffice it to say that it refers to having a goal and achieving it….with others and not needing to take credit for the result.  Although, ironically, if you do master that skill, others will begin to connect the fact that when you are around they do better.

She points out that most cultures make assumptions about leaders that are taken for granted:  that they have all the answers, that the followers will follow, and that more control produces better results — particularly for big risky projects.  That’s why CEOs, Managing Director’s, etc. “get the big bucks.”

But complex problems require integrating many different types of skills and creating an environment where the collective intelligence of a diverse set of minds (age, experience, knowledge, culture, geography), are harnessed to solve these problems.  They identify the problems, analyze, speculate, debate, experiment, build and test ideas for their solutions.  And maybe even rethink the goals.   The hero-based command and control model  doesn’t work when the problems are complex.  It’s much more useful when you know exactly what needs to be done and just have to execute (i.e. an aid airlift).

As it turns out the political, business and academic worlds make it very difficult to assemble a truly diverse set of minds.  Our societies put skill sets in silos and protect them with hard earned credentials that filter out the non-cognoscenti…the riff raff.

So, being able to “harness” the appropriately diverse minds is an art form.

One of the most common ways to do that is to convene a group.  But getting the right people to come and creating an environment that overcomes the barriers to collaboration is really difficult.   In the world of opera the person who can do that is known as an impresario.  They can recruit and manage multiple divas.  In other worlds, they are collaborative leaders.

The medical world I have lived in, of surgeons, specialists, department chairmen and a host of supporting cast is very much like the opera.  The symbols of power and control are rampant.  Learning to lead as “host,” not “hero,” can produce far better and longer lasting results.  Thank you Meg.