The role of collaborative leadership in transformational change

In their book, Collaborative Leadershipbuilding relationships, handling conflict, sharing control, David Arthur and Alex Cameron argue that collaborative leadership is vital to success in today’s interdependent world.  “If interdependence is here to stay, then the only successful response is to develop your own collaborative leadership capability to deal with it.”

I was thinking about collaborative leadership as I heard about David Davis resignation this morning.  He is the former Brexit Minister, charged with handling the negotiations that would lead to Britain’s departure from the European Union, following the results of the UK-EU Referendum in 2016.

Since then, the Prime Minister, Theresa May has been engaged in all sorts of policy contortions to try to find a way forward that would satisfy the Hard Brexiteers, the Soft Brexiteers and all the varying degrees of hard-soft between.

On the 6thJuly, there was an announcement that the Cabinet had, finally, come to a collective decision and would have collective responsibility for the policy position that had taken something like 12-hours to work through.

Less than 72-hours later, it seems that the so-called collective decision was no such thing.  David Davis resigned, citing “principle” and stating that, as the Brexit Minister, he could not go to Brussels to try and sell a policy position he did not agree with.  Outside Cabinet he would be able to be more vocal in calling for a stance of ‘this far and no further.’

As I was listening to David Davis’ interview on the Today programme, the question that came to mind for me was:

what kind of leadership does it take to effectively lead complex, transformational change (such as Brexit), especially where there is a lack of a shared vision about where the organisation, business or enterprise is going and want to achieve, and where there is disagreement, even, about the principles that should guide thinking and focus?”

Does the answer lie in Collaborative Leadership?

Arthur and Cameron (cited above) recommend collaborative leadership as a response to interdependency. I would argue that collaborative leadership also offers a really useful approach to the challenges of embedding complex, systemic, transformational change.

What is collaborative leadership?

Collaborative leadership starts, according to David Chrislip and Carl Larson, in Collaborative Leadership, from the premise that “if you bring the appropriate people together in constructive ways with good information, they will create authentic visions and strategies for addressing the shared concerns of the organisation or community.”

Hank Rubin, author and founder of the Institute of Collaborative Leadership, wrote that a collaborative leader is one who accepts “responsibility for building – or helping to ensure the success of – a heterogeneous team to accomplish a shared purpose.”

Based on the above definitions, there are six key dimensions that go to make up collaborative leadership:

  • A heterogeneous team of appropriate people
  • Working in constructive ways
  • With good information
  • To create authentic visions and strategies
  • For addressing shared concerns
  • And having collective responsibility for helping to ensure success

While some of these elements may be in place with the Cabinet as they discuss Brexit, it is clear that many of the other elements are missing – most notably, the sense of collective responsibility for success and creating authentic visions.

An important element that is missing from the above definition is TRUST.

According to Patrick Lenzioni (The Five Dysfunctions of Team) and other authors writing on team working, TRUST is the foundation of effective relationships that lead to desired results and outcomes.  In essence, teams do not perform well without trust.

For Judith Glazer (Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results), great conversations contribute to creating trust.  She distinguishes three levels of conversations:

Level I: Transactional conversations – used  to transact business and share information with one another

Level II: Positional conversations – using a strong position and point of view to influence others to accept your view of the world

Level III – Transformational conversations – communicating with others to transform and shape reality together

As new ministers are brought into the Cabinet to replace outgoing ministers, the Prime Minister with her Cabinet Members will need to draw on a collaborative leadership approach to develop and sustain trusting relationships based on co-creating conversations.

Note: At the time of posting this article, Boris Johnson the Foreign Secretary has announced his resignation from the Cabinet.