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?
Collective Leadership: Wellsprings & Inner Workings
A - The flat aspect of collective leadership
In a management team, leadership is collective. Apart from the president, each member of the executive or management committee must show leadership. Actually, the issues that this collective must deal with are across-the-board and require a hands-on approach.
The first building-block of collective leadership: The executive committee or ‘excom.’ Decisions taken in excoms are fed by all, impacting all members of the excom, who are jointly responsible in front of their troops just as they are before their shareholders, in case of failure. The quality of the conversation that takes shape in an excom, the level of trust, of listening and of cross-hybridization is fundamental. Collective transverse dialogue is also crucial at the diagnostic and analytical stages as well as when setting up an action plan.
The second building-block of collective leadership is the everyday interactions of these networks of leaders. In these networks multiple-interactions take place. These interactions are complex, operational, cultural, aspirational. They spread belief and ambition (“If they think it’s possible then so do I,” or “together, we can do it,” or still “If they can do it then I must be able to do it”) and, coupled with the pooling of skills, can move mountains.
The third building-block of this flat structure, outside of the management team, are the co-workers occupying the near strata on the hierarchy, those with the same unity of purpose, who are themselves also going to contribute the strength of team spirit, of shared abilities, from the solidarity they afford to their judgment and impact.
Finally leadership, being deeply anchored in humility, allows horizontality to take place between those on very different levels of the hierarchy. This is summed up in the saying of the French 17th century poet Jean de La Fontaine: “You often need those smaller than yourself.”
Great leaders don’t (only) seek inspiration from their peers, but also those younger or lower down on the totem pole, if these demonstrate talent. They don’t let their ego be a barrier, or the hierarchy blind them to the pearls of wisdom to be found here in terms of innovation and creativity.
And they accept exchanges with people at all levels of their organization, not only to motivate, but also for self-enrichment and to better understand. To be attuned to, and in the skin of, different links in the human chain, that too is flat leadership.
B - The bottom-up aspect of collective leadership
The collective element of leadership is also a powerful force forged by a chain of linked skills that is vertical. Take, for example, a finance department that’s in the midst conducting of a major takeover: the CFO will only be able to carry out a successful takeover project with the aid of his lieutenant responsible for mergers and acquisitions, who has identified the target and brought them to the negotiating table, but also that of the director of financing to convince the banks to authorize the necessary loans. These same people will get nowhere unless the key people on their teams have analyzed the risks and addressed the doubts, both during due diligence and whilst the complex negotiations themselves are being undertaken. In this human chain, energy moves vertically in order to deal effectively with a large-scale operation and its attendant dangers.
When asked to comment on the subject of collective leadership Eric Dumas, the CFO of French real estate company Altarea Cogedim, gave the following illuminating response: “We become a leader only by surrounding ourselves with colleagues stronger than ourselves, who push us to the top. And theses colleagues too are made better by their own brilliant staff. You must pull your team towards the top and also be pushed by them. An effective organization knows how to place leaders at each level of the chain of responsibility.” He goes on to add, “A member of the excom shows leadership by recruiting leaders in his or her team, inspiring in them and transmitting to them a culture of leadership at all levels by, for example encouraging personal responsibility.
The lesson here is striking. Collective leadership is not a handful of coordinated leaders among a mass of staff, steering big units or operations. It may be, and let’s dare to say must be, a chain that runs through all echelons. Leave it to Eric Dumas to elaborate, “At each level, people must at once be coach, of their direct subordinates, and coached, by their direct superiors. I believe in the apprenticeship model, leaders leading at each level.”
Leadership must be a function that is distributed vertically. Specialists in power will be shocked to hear this, won’t believe it, for one simple reason: power may not be shared, but leadership is.
In any leadership, the collective element is crucial and allows for interactions that supersede power games. The benefits of joining forces, of going beyond the inner circle or the higher strata of the company, are enormous. As Dumas notes, “Everyone must be able to occupy an ever greater role, because it is this combined effort that allows the firm to achieve, to mature, to shed its old skin and get to the next level.”
C – The management team: between management and leadership
In any management team the role of Leadership and that of Management must be balanced. Those focused on leadership favor the future, innovation, disruption, the human aspect. On the other hand, those focused on management emphasize processes, planning, organizational structure. But the champions of one or the other must have a more complete vision, achieve a balance between the two, think about the long term and have a clear picture of the future, as well as the thorny present. A mutual respect between the camps, each of which has their legitimacy, is essential for the team to be able to operate effectively in the long term.
A disruptive leader, who is not supported (pushed toward excellence) by excellent managers won’t get very far. Conversely, a manager too focused on absolute performance and the continuation of the current economic model will certainly fail to spot the changes that technological evolution or the competition pose. A management team must, therefore, be bonded by the willingness to listen, the humility, the solidarity and, above all, the complementarity of its members.
Paridoxically, great successes are at once very collaborative and very individual. Without the power of a network of leaders, the main leader is nothing. Without the main leader’s ability to moderate and synthesize, the network of leaders who run a company or a major project collapse.
One of the most overlooked secrets of great leaders and their magnificent successes is that a great leader has one cardinal objective: to create a network of leaders, as well as an organization which orchestrates the individual and collective actions of both.
Second conclusion, the summa divisio Leader/Follower masks a crucial truth: Inside one leader is hidden another. The function of a leader is to free up resources and produce and coach more leaders. We can be a leader and a follower at the same time, coach and coached, through the collective spirit of leadership.
Finally, Leadership is intrinsically collective because, founded on team spirit, respect and listening, and with an eye on the big picture, the leader always needs to surround themselves with people of the same caliber. But it’s also true that leadership is intrinsically individual, because everyone is a strong link in the chain of responsibility, energy and spirit.
Author: Pierre Lorenceau
Translator: Simon McGeady
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