From the Individual to the Collective – a Paradigm Shift

Leadership paradigms often refer to only individual leaders and the expansion their individual skills. The collective has been missing in leadership development thus far. However, the challenges faced in most sustainability projects require us to go beyond the individual – and build the capacity of groups and systems. To  move critical issues of common concern forward requires collective action, dialogue and collaboration. Moreover, most employee performance indicators do not measure the quality of collective human interaction. Yet, this is what counts most for results.

We therefore need to shift from a self-centered consciousness to awareness of the larger whole.

This capacity building will be the cornerstone of our response to global as well as local sustainability challenges.

Can one develop the leadership competence of a collective of diverse actors?

This is not a new question. Peter Senge, the conceptual pioneer of the idea of learning organizations[i] speaks about team learning as a collective discipline. “The championship sports teams and great jazz ensembles provide metaphors for acting in spontaneous yet coordinated ways. Outstanding teams in organizations develop the same sort of relationship – an “operational trust” – where each team member remains conscious of other team members and can be counted to act in ways that complements each other’s actions.”[ii]

Let us take this quote as a starting point – while bearing in mind that the challenges of sustainability go far beyond team cooperation in one organization. Indeed, they need to build committed teams of leaders within and across institutions. We need to bring together leaders, who act within their own institutional boundaries, yet who work toward a similar goal on a collective scale, where people need to think together and to cooperate across departmental or institutional territories. We need to integrate different organizational cultures into joint initiatives and foster collaboration between diverse stakeholders.

Bill Issacs, a pioneer in dialogue as a core competence for leaders suggests that a system of actors has “… ‘collective leadership’ when people are attuned to each other so well that, even when separate, they naturally act in harmony with each other and the goals of the common enterprise.”

Most leaders even within organizations are far away from such an ideal collaborative state of mind. As Bill Isaacs states: “They meet as individuals, squeezing time from their more urgent work, debating from their individual perspectives and concentrating on their individual domains of authority. Their actions, and the actions of those who report to them, consequently take place at cross-purposes, and they often seem trapped in cycles of opposition and breakdown.” [iii]

How do we move away from a fragmented way of working towards better co-creation?

Rather than perceiving the goal of better co-creation as frustratingly far away, we can start by rediscovering and remembering what we already know.

Monika Griefahn, the Co-Founder of Greenpeace Germany and former Minister of Environmental Affairs in the federal state of Lower Saxony explained how, when she took over her government post, she succeeded in gradually changing the mind-set and culture of a bureaucracy and turned people into change agents. During her time in office, Lower Saxony became a pioneer in establishing renewable energies with procedures, regulations and approaches that have since been adopted by other federal states and by other countries. “You have to have an image of the future that goes far beyond the operational goals you would normally set yourself. You need to inspire people to think in possibilities rather than limitations. And you need to ask people for their point of view. I never expected that we would have such a long-term impact when I took over the Ministry of Environment – suddenly people started to co-operate across ministries. We created round tables and joint initiatives, and people who had been dormant woke up and contributed. It was the feeling of a movement that pushed us forward.” Collective leadership for sustainability is the capacity of a group of actors to deliver their contribution to a joint purpose collaboratively, while putting high priority on the common good, and a balance between the needs of people, profit, and planet.

This example demonstrates how successful multi-actor collaborations for sustainability share the characteristic of an orientation toward FUTURE POSSIBILITIES. It is the creative potential in sustainability that inspires people to join in and commit. Collaborative leaders are visionaries in the sense that they see the unknown not as a threat but as a potential and are, therefore, more likely to spot innovative solutions. We cannot travel the path toward sustainability in silos, but must harness COLLECTIVE INTELLIGENCE and let it complement individual expertise. Even in the midst of performance demands and project pressure we can access our HUMANITY – the deeper layer in the potential of human encounter that connects us all in the world.

For more information on the Art of Leading Collectively, checkout the inside the book and  reviews on, or get inspired by an onsite course that takes the compass into the daily challenges of navigating complex change.


[i] Senge, P. (2010) Die fünfte Disziplin: Kunst und Praxis der lernenden Organization, Kindle version. Cornerstone Digital. Available at:

[ii] Senge, P. (2010) Die fünfte Disziplin: Kunst und Praxis der lernenden Organization., Kindle version. Cornerstone Digital Available at, p. 288.

[iii] Isaacs, W. (2005) Leadership for Collective Intelligence. Available at:

[v] Koch, G. (2010) Coca-Cola’s water stewardship strategy drive. The Guardian. [Online] 29 November. Available at:

Categories: Collective Leadership and Executive Education.

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