Although governments don’t seem to be acting collaboratively these days, businesses and agencies are — and increasingly so. Let’s face it: In the complex and unpredictable conditions facing managers in this era, we cannot rely on a single source of expertise. We need to respond to complexity in our internal and external markets with collaborative and collective practices. We require the contribution and creativity of all stakeholders.
In sum, we need safe, collaborative environments where everyone can contribute, thereby unleashing the leadership potential that already exists at your doorstep. And it comes with bottom-line benefits — namely, increased quality, innovation, proactivity, resiliency and learning.
But if collaboration is our goal, doesn’t that require a change in the mindset and operation of leadership development? Must we not have to shift from an exclusive focus on individuals — as in leader development — to a focus on collective or team leadership development?
Furthermore, rather than conducting leadership development away from the office, might we need to return it to the very setting where the practices of leadership are taking place? Why would we want to pull managers out of their workplace to attend classes that presume to teach leadership competencies or best practices? They would be isolated in a public setting, detached from the site where leadership is going on. They may learn the competency lists but may not find them applicable to the real problems back home. Shouldn’t learners concentrate on getting better at solving their own problems in their own settings?
Leadership development thus requires an acute immersion in the learners’ practices in real-time. For the sake of learning, leadership development facilitators may accelerate the process by exposing them to problems or dilemmas to see if they can “learn their way out.” The critical change the facilitators would make is to introduce novel forms of conversation that can bring out the skills of collective learning and dialogue. Participants would engage in empathic listening, understand and practice the value of reflecting on different perspectives, and entertain the prospect of being changed by what they learn. This collective learning process opens up space for innovative ways to accomplish work or even reconceive how work should be done in the first place.
But how does the CLO manage this collective learning process? Clearly there is a need for work-based learning and development, such as peer mentoring, coaching, apprenticeship, appreciative inquiry, group process reflection and action learning, so learners may acquire a situated understanding of what works, what doesn’t work and what might work. Their knowledge and improvement would arise from real engagements and collective reflection on the natural experience.
Among the aforementioned strategies, action learning might be the most fitting because it calls for learners working with fellow colleagues on real-time projects within their own work environment. They come to view learning as being acquired in the midst of action and dedicated to the task at hand. They work in peer-learning teams to support and challenge one another while demonstrating a learning-to-learn aptitude that values fresh questions over expert knowledge.
An example of this is the famed collective leadership model used by national men’s rugby team New Zealand’s All Blacks. A case study of the team by Thomas Johnson and colleagues attributed the team’s 75 percent winning record in test matches over a 100-year period to its collective leadership, which produces a commitment by the team to total honesty in self and team evaluation and reflection.
Bottom-up learning accompanies its philosophy, as evidenced by the words of one of its coaches: “As we become more aware of the need for player-centered coaching rather than coach-centered, we try to recreate and simulate pressures of the game … and throw them in unpredicted events, and get the players to solve that problem.”
Let’s now circle back to my original claim about collaborative leadership and consider why work-based learning may be the appropriate prescription for developing leadership as a collective process extending beyond the individual. The most critical meta-skill it enhances is developing in learners a peripheral awareness of one another. They seek out and learn from others’ views. They see value in sharing leadership. With action learning in particular, team members begin to make use of the team’s resources and recognize the strengths and weaknesses of others — who provides support, who knows where to find answers to difficult problems, who fosters team spirit, and so on.
These issues are learning issues, and work-based learning allows them to become the knowledge responsibilities of the entire team.
Joe Raelin holds the Knowles Chair of Practice-Oriented Education at Northeastern University and is principal of the firm The Leaderful Consultancy. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.