Observing what makes collaborative leaders effective when they step forward in a group never ceases to amaze me. Are they the ones with big job titles? Often not. Emotional intelligence in collaborative undertakings matters more than authority.
A collaborative leader, with a single gesture, can resolve inadvertent voids created by others on the team. Sometimes it seems as if their mere presence moves the project forward.
What are they doing? Why are colleagues comfortable taking their lead?
The orientation of a collaborative leader
In a recent post about the chops of a collaborator, I highlighted nine traits they embody — traits most people have to varying degrees and can be cultivated through practice and astute observation. In studying collaborative leaders, another subset of traits emerges. Whether it’s a board chair, team coach or project leader, they can be seen exhibiting several specific behaviors.
What brought us all together?
First and foremost, they accentuate shared goals. This keeps the focus on what people want to accomplish together. As differences surface about strategies and tactics, they don’t allow them to drive a wedge. By reminding people of the end goal, they nurture cohesion.
Who showed up for this?
Second, they have genuine respect for every individual involved. No exceptions. In their mind – not just in their behavior – nobody is better or more important than another regardless of intellect or position. These leaders also make sure to invite introverted or quiet participants into the fold.
Yes … and?
Third, collaborative leaders are anything but rigid. It’s not uncommon to find them adopting a core tenet of improvisation, the “yes and” approach. It’s the definitive opposite of “yes but.” Rather than set up competition, collaborative leaders encourage people to build on each other’s strengths, ideas and contributions.
Merging these first three attributes, a composite begins to take shape. It’s that of a leader who tolerates dissension at the same time they keep the process from derailing. As everyone’s voice is honored it’s almost inevitable that disagreement will arise. Leaders make sure power is distributed across the group and avoid being the arbiter. They demonstrate receptivity, inclusivity and an overarching respect for the group’s shared aspiration or goal.
Where’s this process going?
The risk to larger-scale collaborations is that they collapse under their own weight. When more and more projects have to run in parallel, inter-dependencies keep multiplying. Ideally there’s tight coordination. But that adds time. The more complex and the broader the scope, the easier it is for people to lose sight of exactly where they are in the grand process. This can be discouraging. Even worse, disorienting.
Collaborative leaders appreciate the clarity for everyone that comes from stating the obvious. They toggle between reminders about the bigger goal, the distance that’s already been covered, the obstacles overcome, the milestones achieved, the decisions reached, and, the present day realities. They don’t shrink away from asking obvious questions. If there’s an elephant in the room, they name it. When it comes to orienting the group, collaborative leaders work to assure everyone’s on the same page about where they are at any given moment.
Equally important is framing what’s ahead. What is known now that could not have been known before? What does that mean for next steps, and the phases beyond that? Since things are bound to change, the group will always be addressing unexpected twists and turns. Adjustments must be made. Being a collaborative leader doesn’t mean having predictive powers about the future. Rather, it’s an ability to embrace multiple, viable possibilities. Then articulate them to help others gain their bearings for the work, and the process, that lies ahead. Collaborative leaders remain attuned to the context and the content of the journey right up until it is over.
The behaviors outlined above shouldn’t be the purview of just one leader in a group. The more members of a collaboration that can function in these ways, the larger the group’s capacity to tolerate natural tensions that are innate to the creating process.
Situational leadership often hums in the background. At different phases of the project, one person or another’s collaborative leadership strength can be drawn on. In that moment, it’s exactly what the group needs. In genuine collaborations I’ve observed, there’s no monopoly on leadership. What’s needed today may be your precise talent as a collaborative leader. Tomorrow’s need may draw from someone else’s strength. Collectively, collaborative leaders don’t hold back – they contribute their gifts and make ample room for others to contribute theirs.
There is no question anymore that collaboration, seeking out diverse perspectives and developing new ways to look at challenges and opportunities, is a key leadership competency.
– Elizabeth R. Thornton, author, The Objective Leader