Project Management Institute

Collaborative Leadership - The Power Skill You Need to Apply NOW

people sitting at table with pens and pads of paper in front of large window

Photo by Dylan Gillis on Unsplash

06 August 2020

In today’s new work ecosystem, constant change is forcing teams to face an array of problems head on. To find their solutions, teams are turning to one critical power skill to get the job done—collaborative leadership.

Today’s problems are massive.

We live in a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) world where teams of all types are identifying problems and defining solutions—solutions for problems no one person can solve. Leadership takes collaboration, and below I share some guidance from industry thought leaders around how you can apply collaborative leadership in your organization.

Engaging “Followers” to Collaborate

A memorable 2011 Harvard Business Review (HBR) article asked the question, “Are you a collaborative leader?” The article discussed the general power of collaboration—creating an inclusive environment where individual staff could easily contribute and feel greater ownership of the result. It ran down a list of leader-centric, top-down actions that defined collaborative leadership like:

  • Playing global connector
  • Engaging talent at the periphery
  • Collaborating at the top first
  • Showing a strong hand
  • Loosening control without losing control

Depending upon your organizational structure, each of these actions can be a great bridge to a better place culturally. However, you can go even further with collaborative leadership.

Collaborative Leadership as a “Power Skill”

Collaborative leadership involves a bundle of soft skills that help you create trust and psychological safety within your teams. It’s more than just a set of conceptual actions. It’s a skill set—a real “power skill” that takes time and dedication to develop. The leadership style is also a change in mindset, from individual to collective. Oxford leadership suggests that, “by collaborative leadership, we mean the process of engaging collective intelligence to deliver results across organizational boundaries when ordinary mechanisms of control are absent.”

The collaborative leadership style is a results-oriented, collectivist approach that’s difficult to develop and apply consistently. However, if properly embraced, the power skill can lead to people looking to you as a natural leader.

Collaborative Leadership as a Game Changer

Lorna Davis, a leadership coach speaks on collaborative leadership in her TED Talk describing it as a game changer in the workplace. Davis says collaborative leaders:

  • Set goals differently: They set goals that are important, but impossible to accomplish as an individual. She even extends this to ecosystem players and sometimes competitors.
  • Declare goals before they have a plan: It’s an invitation to the team for co-creation of that plan.
  • Knows others are needed as collaborators: Colleagues should not be your competitors or followers and remember the leader is not a hero.

Davis says we need “radical interdependence” to make real change happen and solve the world’s big problems. Many would support this need for interdependence, simply based on the fact true innovation today is increasingly born out of complexity and out of understanding that must be drawn out of more than one expert.

Harvard Business Review Approach vs. Lorna Davis Approach

Collaborative leadership involves a broad range of skills, some can be applied immediately. Others take some time to develop. So, if you’re trying to decide which collaborative leadership approach is right for you and your organization, consider the following:

  • Choose the Harvard Business Review Approach if your basic leadership skills are solid and you just need some help tweaking or validating the solution.
  • Choose the Lorna Davis Approach if you feel the outcome you need to achieve is pretty much impossible to achieve or are having difficulty even defining the problem.

No matter which flavor of collaborative leadership you embrace—leveraging the skills, experience, diverse perspectives, and opinions of others is critical to driving change in this VUCA world. In a recent Pulse of the Profession report, "Tomorrow's Teams Today," project professionals ranked collaborative leadership as the most essential team skill. Arguably, it is the critical power skill all serious change makers need today. How far will you take the “power of many”?