Virtual Roundtable – Summary of Discussion on The Power of Collective Leadership

The aim of the Beyond Default Roundtable discussions is to give experienced practitioners in strategy and change an opportunity to share their experiences, challenge conventional wisdom, brainstorm ideas and network with peers who have the same interests and challenges.

In August 2021 a group of executives, consultants and academics met virtually to discuss the power of collective leadership. The discussion was led by David Trafford, co-author of Beyond Default and moderated by Chris Hallam, founder of CH Coaching Solutions.

As the Roundtable followed Chatham House Rules, the summary below only attributes information that is in the public domain.

Moderator: Let’s kick-off by talking about what collective leadership is and why it’s different. What are your thoughts David?
Before we get into collective leadership, I think we should remind ourselves what leadership is and how it differs from management. For me the purpose of leadership is to take an organisation to a place it’s not currently headed. Whereas management is about ensuring the effective use of resources, optimising operations and making incremental improvements – which are all very important. In fact, some would say that many organisations would benefit more from good management than leadership.

Leadership is therefore closely linked with strategy, where the purpose of strategy is to change the trajectory of an organisation – from one taking it to its default future – to one taking it to a different, and improved, future. Which is the core thinking behind the Beyond Default approach to strategy and change. In fact, the last chapter of the book Beyond Default is called ‘It All Starts With Collective Leadership’.

Collective leadership is where members of a leadership team pursue a collective agenda, rather than their individual agendas. It’s where individuals exercise their leadership roles within a group – and then the entire group provides leadership to the wider organisation. It’s a fluid and flexible approach to leadership, where roles and resultant accountabilities evolve in response to changing circumstances. It’s where all members put time and effort into being aligned in their thinking and behaviour. Importantly, it’s where all members of a leadership team take collective action and accept collective accountability.

That’s not to say that there is harmony all the time. There will be disagreement, but the leaders have the cognitive skills needed to actively listen, effectively collaborate, seek one another’s perspectives, constructively challenge, know their anchors and recognise their emotional attachments.

As a result, the power of a leadership team practising collective leadership is more effective than the sum of the individual leaders.

Moderator: To what extent is collective leadership practised in organisations today?
Not widely. More often you find there are teams of leaders rather than leadership teams. This is often a result of the individual incentives given to leaders and the lack of shared goals. Unfortunately, organisations tend not to have the will or skills to find ways for leaders to collaborate rather than compete.

The exception tends to be in the early days of start-ups before they’ve reached the stage where institutional thinking takes hold and people are managed in the traditional way through individual, rather than collective, goals. Another situation where it’s often seen is in self-directed teams, but you don’t see self-directed teams very often.

It’s certainly the exception rather than the norm.

Moderator: David, are there any organisation where you’ve seen collective leadership in action?
Yes, but not as many as I’d like. In a recent blog I described four organisations that practised collective leadership to varying degrees. The first was a mid-sized UK financial services organisation, the second a US manufacturing company, the third a UK NHS Hospital Trust and the fourth a German life and general insurance company. They didn’t all practise collective leadership in the same way, but the patterns were very similar. They each applied collective leadership in ways that worked best for them.

It’s true to say that in over 25 years of consulting in many organisations, across a range of industries in multiple countries, collective leadership has been the exception rather than the norm. While many leaders feel that their organisations would benefit from collective leadership, they acknowledge that it would be too difficult to introduce.

However, there has been some progress. In the UK NHS, following a series of leadership failures in several NHS Trusts, The Kings Fund and the Centre for Creative Leadership wrote a White Paper entitled Delivering a Collective Leadership Strategy for Health Care. Also, the UK Government Cabinet Office appointed a Head of Collective Leadership. The stated aim being to ‘bring together senior public service leaders across and beyond the Civil Service to explore complex systemic challenges, share perspectives and create conditions for collective action that delivers benefit to the citizens we serve’. I think we can conclude that this remains work in progress.

Moderator: Is it not the case that the age of the individual leader has passed?
While many would agree, the reality is that in most cases individual leaders are assigned to specific roles. As a result top leadership teams often comprise a relatively narrow group of senior executives with individually assigned authority. The question then is twofold: firstly, how they work together as a team and secondly, how they get other – often more knowledgeable people in their respective area – involved in strategic decision-making. In today’s world strategic decisions need to go well beyond the top leadership team.

Some companies are trying to build broader collective leadership through their organisational design. In one example, leadership accountability was extended out from the formal leadership team into other parts of the organisation, including product development and other functional areas that are fully empowered to make key decisions that ultimately impact profitability. To encourage a collective approach to leadership, and discourage traditional silos, they no longer have organisational charts.

While collective leadership should permeate all levels of an organisation it does start with the senior leadership team. It’s important to remember that ‘behaviour breeds behaviour’ and those reporting to the senior leadership group often assume that the behaviour they observe is the norm and one they should follow.

It’s also very difficult to get away from the characteristics or personality of the chief executive. While some CEOs create an atmosphere where collective thinking and action is encouraged, it’s often not the case when they’re primarily concerned about their own personality, reputation and ego.

Moderator: If a behaviour is a response to stimulus, are there some stimuli that prompt the right behaviours and are there some skills particular to collective leadership?
There are some skills that underpin collective leadership. These are the cognitive brain-based skills needed for the acquisition of knowledge, manipulation of information and reasoning. They have more to do with the mechanisms of how people learn, remember, problem-solve and pay attention, than with actual knowledge. They are the skills that encompass the domains of perception, attention, memory, learning, decision-making and language abilities.

These skills include the ability to think in terms of outcomes, the ability to listen to others, the ability to see other people’s perspectives, the ability to examine all evidence rather than seeking that which confirms you are right, the ability to build on what’s common and shared, the ability to identify your anchors, the ability to recognise those things you are emotionally connected to, the ability to apply the most appropriate ‘tool’ to a given situation and, finally, the ability to let things go and move on. While these cognitive skills are not specific to collective leadership they are important.

Moderator: Moderator: These cognitive skills are not common where there is a cult of personality, they are the opposite almost of what you’d expect to see.
Agreed. Take one of these skills ‘the ability to listen’, there are many CEOs and senior leaders who don’t listen because they think they know the answer. Equally, many don’t think in terms of outcomes, they think in terms of ‘do what I want you to do’.

One of the underlying common facets in organisations that exhibit collective leadership is trust, which is either inherent or created through the rewards and penalties being equitable, where people think ‘I have as much to win or lose as you’. Where that trust is missing human behaviour always asks, ‘am I being screwed over here?’ or ‘what’s he/she up to here?’ and the response is ‘I need to protect myself’. As human beings it’s very difficult to get out of this mindset.

However, collective leadership is a natural human tendency that comes to the fore when we face a crisis, either within our team or when we face a national calamity. In these situations people come together naturally and start discussing what needs to be done to manage the situation. When there is no crisis people tend to go back to their individual way of working. If we could find a way of exercising this natural human tendence more often it would be beneficial for our teams, our organisation, our countries and even for the world. Maybe the key is linking our work to a higher cause.

Moderator: We’ve established that we don’t see collective leadership very often and we’ve talked about some of the challenges. What should organisations concentrate on if they want to develop collective leadership?
Picking up on a previous point, if the CEO, or a leader of a division, business unit or functional area has no interest or desire to pursue collective leadership it’s a bit of a lost cause. The only answer is to replace them.

Assuming the designated leader is supportive, a good place to start is assessing the degree to which the behaviours, cognitive skills and operating principles of collective leadership are already in place. We’ve talked about the behaviours and cognitive skills, but we’ve not talked about operating principles. Operating principles are simply the collective choices a leadership team has made in terms of how they intend to operate and how they want to lead. One example could be how individuals are selected for a leadership team, in that they are selected based upon their belief in collective action and accountability, rather than their knowledge and experience alone. Another could be that the leadership team learns and develops through collective learning experiences, rather than individual learning. Operating principles are often described as the rules by which the leadership team has decided to operate. They are a set of conscious choices.

In one organisation the new Director of HR quickly diagnosed that the extended leadership team – comprising very bright and capable individuals – were all operating to a completely different set of rules. What she did was to work with them to a establish a set of common operating principles that defined how they would collectively lead. At the time they didn’t call it collective leadership, but that’s what it was.

Moderator: How easy did they find the transition between one way of leading to another?
Picking up on the previous example, it all started when the new HR Director and CEO recognised that the organisation could be more successful if the extended leadership team worked together rather than individually. They then created the context for it to happen by defining a set of rules, or operating principles. This was the foundation. They then developed the cognitive skills that enabled collective leadership behaviour. What they then did was coach each other in real-time. Over time this developed trust, which created greater collective leadership.

The transition of the organisation previously mentioned – that no longer has organisational charts – started with a new head who managed to transcend his ego and look beyond. Even though the organisation was not in a crisis he established a vision of where they wanted to go. He then involved his 84 leaders around the globe on the journey. These leaders were at all kinds of levels of understanding of what leadership is and what their operating model should be. He became the ‘head of energy’ for the organisation and his first step was to bring his leaders together and develop a common language. Leadership is now everywhere, but without this guy ‘opening up space’ it would have been very different.

The key question is how leadership is distributed and how leadership teams communicate and work together. In most cases leadership teams don’t work well together, which may be a result of how organisations are organised. For example, organisations are hierarchical and led by a CEO, who is the most responsible and highest paid person. If something goes wrong his or her head will go first. Does that not go against the notion of collective leadership? Fundamentally we don’t have a collective CEO we still have one CEO who is more responsible than others. We still have divisions of expertise where somebody is responsible for each division. So, if say, R&D is failing, the head of R&D is more responsible than the other leaders in R&D. The fundamental question therefore is whether collective leadership fundamentally challenges the notion of organisational hierarchy or is it more a behavioural aspect of individual leaders?

Moderator: I’d like to share one experience around the notion that the CEO and hierarchy drives some kind of inherent resistance to collective leadership. I’ve worked with organisations where the absence of ego has been a characteristic of the organisation and the CEO, while providing direction when the direction was needed, created a collaborative way of working. This made a difference. I use as an example some of the successful sports teams where the pain is felt by everybody, and the success is felt by everybody. It doesn’t matter whether the head coach changes or the captain changes or the team changes, they are great permanently because they share something around that level of contribution and pain. While I understand the point about hierarchy it feels to me that it’s an attitudinal choice of the leader to act collaboratively.
What we’re talking about here is why collective leadership is not more widely practised and what’s getting in the way? The attitude of some CEOs is certainly a factor. Also, we’re not going to get away from hierarchy anytime soon. There will always be some form of hierarchy, there will always be someone designated more accountable than others. The responses should therefore be; if you are the most senior designated person, what can you do to increase your chances of success? In today’s increasingly complex, volatile and uncertain world you can’t do it on your own, it needs the collective brains and experience of many, rather than the one leader who tells everybody else what to do. Doing it on your own is a broken model of leadership, which to a degree we must blame on Hollywood where the heroic leader slays enemies or beats the competition. Also, one of the other impediments to greater collective leadership is this legacy of the past thinking of what leadership is and the multibillion-dollar leadership development industry that’s perpetuating the problem.

There are also other reasons why it’s difficult to introduce collective leadership. One, for example, is organisational complexity. Over the last 40 years or so we’ve created extremely complex organisations that are difficult to understand and control, for which our default response is to break accountability down to individuals. And we’ve already talked about how incentives and rewards tend to be individually based rather than collectively based. The reality is that today’s context perpetuates individual leadership.

Moderator: I know that one of the participants leads a professional organisation that’s supported by a team of volunteers, so remuneration is not a factor.
Yes, the volunteers – some of whom have demanding full-time jobs – act as the management team as well as delivering the work of the Centre. Having collectively concluded that the current default approach was not really working, we decided to develop a new strategy, specifically one that will take us collectively to the next level. In our case the incentives are very different and definitely not based upon renumeration. While we obviously want everyone to stay involved, we recognise that this may be difficult due to their other commitments.

Moderator: I know that one person on the call has experience of self-directed teams where there isn’t that hierarchical leadership model.
Yes, when we put that model in place people self-selected to either be included or decided that this wasn’t for them, so there was an element of self-selection. Some of these teams were allowed to divi-up their bonus pot. We’d tell them they had X amount as bonus and it was for them to decide how it should be appropriated among the team based on their contribution. In year one everybody got the same amount and then people began bending the ears of the managers asking, ‘why did x get the same as me’? The feedback they got was ‘did you put that into the room and challenge it’? To which the reply was ‘no that’s not my job it’s yours’. To which they were told ‘no, it’s now your job’. What we found going into year two was that some people took up that mantle and were happy to challenge within the team and to give and receive feedback, but some couldn’t or wouldn’t and those were the ones that decided the environment wasn’t for them. What we then found was that we had a collective group of people who wanted to be self-directed, who were comfortable and happy to challenge and be challenged. They felt that because they were rewarded on the same basis, and to the previous point that everyone won and everybody lost in the same way, that the trust element was there. Within three years we had some of the highest performing self-directed teams I’ve ever worked with. Furthermore, they were performing way above other parts of the organisation. But what then happened was a further degree of self-selection. We concluded that if you’re introducing self-directed teams not everyone will like it and some people will leave.

The whole notion of culture in the organisation and the role that it plays is also important. At a very basic level organisations tend to be ‘I’ organisations or ‘we’ organisations and in those that are more ‘we’ a far greater collective approach is likely.

Moderator: I’m conscious of time so I’d like to bring things to a close by asking David why collective leadership is important, particularly today.
Firstly, let me say that I see collective leadership as a means to an end, and not an end in itself. I come at this from the point of view of strategy and change, not from leadership per se. Secondly, when I’m asked the question ‘why are some organisations better at strategy and change than others?’, without hesitation my answer is ‘because they have greater collective leadership than those that don’t’. Thirdly, the need for organisations to get better at strategy and change, particularly in these volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous times has never been greater. What I have seen over the past 25 years is that without collective leadership organisations ends up with not one strategy but multiple strategies that are developed with little or no consultation between, or regard for, colleagues in other parts of the organisation. The resultant strategies are often myopic, focusing on maximising short-term results with little regard for the future they’ll bring for the whole organisation. The best strategy for an organisation is very rarely the sum of a diverse set of individual strategies.

And finally, it’s important to remember that collective leadership is not an alternative to individual leadership. It’s a model of leadership that takes individual leadership to the next – collective – level.

If you have any points that you would like to raise with David, please do so by emailing him at

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