Forget the Hero Model, This Style of Leadership is the Future

collective leadership

Most of us are familiar with the “individual genius” model of leadership. Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk founded and led their companies on their own. Certainly, when most of us think about leadership, we think of the individual leader. This person independently creates the vision for an organization and continues developing this vision over time.  But a new model of leadership is becoming an increasingly popular option for modern companies: collective leadership. 

According to the Leaders League, collective leadership is defined as follows: “The impact of a company is nothing without the combination of individual leadership, strong but humble, and the support of a network of leaders, themselves strong but humble. This network of leaders, also known as collective leadership, is a key to success that’s as essential as it is rare.”

In fact, some even argue that famed “individual” leaders actually had and have a similar network of leaders who ensured their success; essentially, they were collective leaders in action, just not in name. The change to collective leadership, then, primarily lies in dismantling the organizational hierarchy and encouraging communal decision-making. 

If we think about the future of leadership, will it be individual or collective? Let’s explore. 

Is individual leadership a myth? 

Some suggest that individual “genius” leadership is, and has always been, a myth. While the media and public like to believe in a lone genius, in truth, successful leaders have always needed teams of advisors. 

Large organizations, too, need teams united under a shared vision and mission. 

So, is collective leadership really all that different? Or is it mostly a shift in mentality? 

What are the biggest shifts between individual and collective leadership work settings? 

Specific examples of the differences between individual and collective leadership are as follows: 

  • Individual leadership is hierarchical; collective leadership is non-hierarchical. 
  • Leaders specify goals and their followers enact these goals in individual leadership; in collective leadership, a group of people develop goals in a spirit of shared responsibility. 
  • In individual leadership, the common good is often not prioritized; in collective leadership, it is. 
  • In individual leadership, there is a clear delineation between leaders and followers; in collective leadership, the line is blurrier, depending on expertise. 
  • Individual leadership aims to develop more individual leaders; collective leadership focuses on spurring collective action. 
  • Individual leadership does not prioritize cooperation or dialogue, while collective leadership does. 

How can collective leadership be enacted? 

If an organization wants to shift from individual to collective leadership, they should consider adopting a few core practices. Organizations should:

  1. Break down silos to share information and collaborate. 
  2. Create an open feedback loop where diverse stakeholders can share ideas and shape direction. 
  3. Establish parameters for what leadership is and encourage team members to see themselves as active participants in the “leadership.”
  4. Combine “directive behaviors and collaborative approaches.”
  5. Allow employees to set their own goals and solve their own problems. 
  6. Develop opportunities for mutual accountability, rather than “underlings” at the company who feel that their input isn’t valued. 
  7. Identify and utilize team members’ potential and interests.
  8. Prioritize building connections across diverse groups, while de-prioritizing a hierarchical organizational structure. 

Fundamentally, an organization can shift to this new mentality by using the “tower” metaphor: 

“To build the tower, the stronger, more experienced or resourceful individuals of the team place themselves at the bottom, providing a solid foundation for the team they serve (the organisation or community) as we see with servant leadership. In this way, the more vulnerable members, or newer generations, can elevate themselves and rise to higher levels,” writes Ross Wilson of Growing Organizations. 

What style of leadership is a better fit in the modern workplace?

Margaret Wheatley and Debbie Frieze describe why collective leadership is more appropriate for modern organizations. Individual leaders have to serve as “heroes,” where they are supposed to solve problems and “fix everything for everyone else.” This leader should also have the cult of personality on their side – appearing more brilliant and independent than anyone else. 

Instead, the authors suggest that even if a person serves as a CEO or president of a company, they can still be a collective leader. Rather than being the hero, this person is, as they say, the “host.” Host leadership encourages teams to make decisions, set goals together, reflect on what’s working, and learn together. 

This model, they say, is more appropriate for the complexity of today’s organizations. The “hero” model is problematic because “this command-and-control model often uses quick solutions that are created by a few in power and often these solutions are not well suited for the complex issues that we face today.”

Collective Leadership is The Way of the Future

Collective leadership is gaining so much traction in leadership fields because it no longer relies on the “heroic” individual leader. In fact, the Collective Leadership Institute insists, “Leadership often refers to the individual, but we need to go beyond the individual and simultaneously build the capacity of groups and systems to move sustainability forwards.”

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