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 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 sophisticated 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 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 those 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 talent. 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.
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 joining such an organization and network of leaders.
The organization must at the same time be inclined towards a 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, yes, for 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.
A network of leaders united by a nobel Project
The leaders to assemble are without a doubt those with the most professional experience. How to convince them to join you? 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 a project’s worth ‒ when it arouses in them the passion to go where no one has gone before ‒ that top talent will be willing to be part of 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.
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 even “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 just seek inspiration from their peers, but also those younger than them or lower down on the totem pole, if these people demonstrate talent. They don’t let their ego get in the way, 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.
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 of conducting 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 these 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.”
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 advances bring or the threats 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, dependent 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.