Collaborative Leadership – A White Paper

Aug 27, 2016 | Leadership Insights (Articles) | 0 comments

Author: Thomas J. Hurley

Engaging collective intelligence to achieve results across organisational boundaries.

Collaborative leadership is an increasingly vital source of competitive advantage in today’s highly networked, team-based, and partnership-oriented business environments. Yet few leaders have been trained to lead collaboratively, especially those at more senior levels who climbed the organisational ladder in a different era.

In this paper we describe key practices of collaborative leadership and identify critical leadership competencies associated with it, highlight common barriers and suggest next steps for companies interested in developing leaders who can collaborate to transform business for good.

Defining Collaborative Leadership

Leaders today need an expanded repertoire of skills and a new mindset to succeed in an ever-more fast-paced, chaotic, and highly competitive business environment. They must be able to think strategically in a global context, articulate an inspiring vision across cultures, and make wise choices amid complexity and uncertainty. They must lead global teams, build dynamic networks, and grow the company’s ability to compete around the world. Increasingly, this calls for collaborative leadership and the creation of collaborative cultures that can harness the knowledge and expertise of all stakeholders to innovate, partner effectively, compete, and win.

By collaborative leadership, we mean the process of engaging collective intelligence to deliver results across organisational boundaries when ordinary mechanisms of control are absent. It’s grounded in a belief that all of us together can be smarter, more creative, and more competent than any of us alone, especially when it comes to addressing the kinds of novel, complex, and multi-faceted problems that organisations face today. It calls on leaders to use the power of influence rather than positional authority to engage and align people, focus their teams, sustain momentum, and perform. Success depends on creating an environment of trust, mutual respect, and shared aspiration in which all can contribute fully and openly to achieving collective goals. Leaders must thus focus on relationships as well as results, and the medium through which they operate is high-quality conversation.

See through complexity to key things you must do to succeed – then co-create a “plan to win” that everyone understands, and is passionate about achieving. Create alignment, engagement, and mutual accountability among all team members.


Working in this way can be challenging for leaders who have established a track record of success by exerting unqualified command over the people and resources under their control. Few leaders have been trained to lead collaboratively, especially at the senior level, and in many cases the culture and reward systems in organisations discourage collaboration. Developing leaders with the capacity to collaborate and creating aligned cultures thus go hand in hand. It’s incredibly challenging work, but increasingly vital for business success.

Our focus in this paper is on collaborative leadership of teams, but the same principles and practices apply to creating more collaborative cultures.

The Context for Collaborative Leadership

A collaborative approach won’t wholly supplant command-and-control leadership in most companies. Yet a multitude of forces are driving the growing need for collaborative leadership in today’s organisations, most notably globalisation and the ICT revolution. Companies must align strategy, coordinate operations, manage teams, and leverage synergies across increasingly complex and distributed organisational structures. Flatter hierarchies, matrix structures, and cross-functional teams are increasingly common, meaning leaders must often work with people over whom they don’t have formal authority. Managers need to engage employees more fully at every level to improve efficiencies, increase agility, understand customer needs, and innovate. Teams need to draw on diverse perspectives from both within and outside the organisation to solve problems and identify opportunities, especially when familiar ways of working no longer apply. The success of business models based on partnerships, strategic alliances and complex supply webs depend on the ability to collaborate.

Driving all this is the dizzying evolution of information and  communication technologies, especially the instantaneous, always-on, hyper-connected business and social networks that now cut across all organisational boundaries. While many companies are still finding their way when it comes to using social media and other interactive technologies productively, they are transforming how people connect, how businesses operate, how companies compete, and how communities organise and govern themselves.

Organizational structures that allow divisions and departments to own their turf and people with long tenure to take root creates the same hardened group distinctions as Congressional redistricting to produce homogeneous voting blocs – all of which makes it easier to resist compromise, let alone collaboration.
Rosabeth Moss KanterProfessor and chair of the Harvard University Advanced Leadership Initiative

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Collaborative Leadership

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