Business & Leadership

Individual vs. Collective Leadership (Part I)

The companies that have had a powerful impact on their industry, from Apple to IBM, from Toyota to Tesla, or Disney to Vivendi, are they the fruit of the success of an individual leader or of collective leadership? What part really do senior leaders play, and what is the part played by their management team? Is leadership really as centralized as it appears to be?

The companies that have had a powerful impact on their industry, from Apple to IBM, from Toyota to Tesla, or Disney to Vivendi, are they the fruit of the success of an individual leader or of collective leadership? What part really do senior leaders play, and what is the part played by their management team? Is leadership really as centralized as it appears to be?

How to organize the governance of a company?

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.  


The individual leader is the hero of magazine features, biographies and fireside discussions. And yet, upon closer examination of their achievements, a secret is uncovered: behind each leader, there lies a network of less well known leaders, who are nevertheless fundamental to his or her work.


Behind the success of French resistance leader Charles de Gaulle, there was General Leclerc and Jean Moulin, and even Churchill, who gave de Gaulle a great legitimacy in the eyes of the media and the international community. Later, behind Charles de Gaulle the statesman, his team of leaders included Debré, Malraux and Pompidou.


The principal leader exists, but three forces conspire to make the network of leaders that facilitate his vision and grand designs disappear into the shadows. The first lens of distortion is the need for the media to simplify. The second, linked to the first, is human attention span. The third is the natural need to put forward a symbol, and this is as much a need of the public as it is the media: to embody, to project oneself, we must assign to a single man, the work of dozens, even thousands of people.


That said, companies are far too complex to be run by just one leader. In our complex world, power is collective both to have a clear vision of marketing, technology, the market, and human resources, and to carry out parallel projects, where the collective is the cornerstone of success. The big organizations understand well that they have need of take-charge people at all levels: operational, national, on each business line.


It must be noted that the course of the world cannot be changed by a single person, unless they are pushed along by a vast collective effort. This vast effort cannot take shape, find its rhythm, its force without the synchronization and organization of a network of leaders. Every one of these less visible leaders brings their mark, strength, organizational ability, technique and effort to the group. Who are they? How does this collective leadership function.



The Fundamentals of Collective Leadership

A – A principled but humble leader

Paradoxically, the first fundamental of collective leadership is that the director be a real leader and not an autocrat. If he is not humble, if the foundations of his work are not based on inclusivity, then the director will only attract mercenaries or talents, and not other leaders with the potential to unleash the power of his project. This humility, among the other qualities of a true leader, is necessary to be able to gather around a common cause high value individuals, who could well have had their own teams elsewhere.


You need a tremendous amount of emotional intelligence to know how to reach out to people, to surround yourself with strong characters, to seek them out. Of course it’s tempting to surround yourself with mediocre and docile yes men, with little creativity and few opinions to express, but it’s important for a leader to grasp the importance of governance based on inclusion and not power. A leader must be capable of horizontal dialogue founded on respect, or risk chasing away his best talents. We must recall the wise words of Ralph Nader, “The function of a leader is to produce more leaders, not more followers.” This surprising maxim perfectly resumes a profound and counter-intuitive truth: a leader is not meant to oppose a follower. The man of power has followers, but the leader, he empowers other younger and more specialized leaders.


B – A network of leaders united by one Organization      

What makes a gathering of numerous leaders possible is an organization that gives them vast scope and a rightful place. The organization must be in sync with the best abilities of each of them. To feel yourself respected and supported by an organization that fits you, one that understands you strengths and weaknesses, each leader is going to grow in stature by rejoining such an organization and network of leaders.


The organization must at the same time be inclined towards the vision and the goal to reach, and also be flexible and compatible with the incompressible wishes of its most eminent members. The organization must funnel the leaders towards the vision, but also be a fertile ground for their growth, rather than a canal. The organization must also be thought of for its capacity to bring individuals together so that they work harmoniously, and not fight one another.


The organizational work that goes along with this is considerable, to constantly be in a position to attract the best leaders to give energy to the vision, in diverse geographical regions as well as technical domains as varied as marketing, finance and operations. However, it’s not enough to just attract, one must also induce an alignment of interests and sensitivities. All things considered, putting in place a quality Organization with a capital ‘O’ to unite, referee, moderate and encourage a network of leaders is no mean feat. It must be focused on growth in order to nourish these leaders’ appetites for a challenge and power, and at the same time be tempered by a culture of respect and camaraderie, with personal and collective territory properly marked out, in order to avoid conflict, disconnects and blind spots. A strong sense of common cause and team spirit are the redoubtable regulators of this Organization.       


C – A network of leaders united by a nobel Project

The leaders to assemble are without a doubt those with the most professional experience. What can give us the opportunity to convince them? The key lies in having an exceptional project to start with, and a vision that offers a real and beautiful challenge, a dream that they can aspire to themselves. It’s when they can feel the project is worthwhile, that it arouses in them the passion to go where no one has gone before, that top talent will be willing to join you on the adventure.


In a calculating, hyper-competitive world which seems to be founded on individual interest, it can seem naïve to expect people to believe in the nobleness of a project. And yet, happily, people are fundamentally more motivated by dreams than by figures, and will always prefer to put their energy into making the world a better place than choose only security and financial gain. Despite what the analysts might say, the heart wants what the heart wants – reason doesn’t enter into it. Didn’t Steve Jobs prise away the very rational CEO of Pepsi by appealing to his heart saying “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?”


Knowing how to make the unique character of each individual shine, having major long-term ambition and having a Project that contributes to society are essential in winning the battle to attract top talent. The strength of the Project is also in its nobleness. And far from a product of PR, this nobleness must be real and authentic.


Finally, orthodoxy would have us believe that it is the principal leader who makes the vision, to which the others adhere. This is a misconception, because the Vision, with a capital ‘V’ is often the fruit of the main leader listening to  other leaders in the company, who has only interpreted and synthesized the best contributions. What’s more, its implementation can’t but be collective. And we know that the genius of a company is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration (Edison) and execution.       



Author: Pierre Lorenceau

Translator: Simon McGeady



This article is taken from our monthly newsletter “Leaders Wisdom Journal”. To Subscribe.


Accenture's CEO and CFO interview by Leaders League Group

About us