From the individual to the collective

Leadership paradigms often refer only to individuals and the expansion of one person’s skills. The challenges we face in sustainability initiatives require us to go beyond the individual and build the capacity of groups and systems to move important issues of common concern forward. This requires collective action, dialogue and collaboration. It is the aspect of collectivity that adds a new dimension to our understanding of better co-creation. The collective has been missing in leadership development thus far. It involves awareness of the underlying complex compositions and dynamics of the systems that require change and the dynamics developing in a group of collaborating actors.

The first principle rests on the insight that life is purposeful. Intentional generativity refers to the urge of life to expand and create a future. It resembles the related capacity of natural organisms and systems to renew, replenish, and restore themselves and become resilient in order to stay alive.

The shift in conceptualizing leadership in complex collaborative change

Leading change is seen as the capacity of the individual Leading change becomes the capacity of a collective
Silo approaches and competitive thinking dominates. Collaboration becomes the norm. Actors drive their interest and the greater joint purpose.
Leadership is seen as taking place in a hierarchical context only. Leadership takes place in non-hierarchical   and co-operation contexts. No actor has discretionary power over other actors.
Leadership is seen as the delivery of goals through enlisting followers. Leadership is understood as the joint delivery of agreed-upon common goals in a climate of collective responsibility. All actors contribute according to their expertise, role and resources.
The focus of leadership tasks is goal attainment only, while the common good is not necessarily in focus of leadership. Leadership and goal attainment is seen and enacted as a contribution to the common good. What the common good is and how to get there is negotiated among all actors. Existing structures (laws and regulations) define the boundaries.
Leadership positions are clearly distinguished from followership. Depending on expertise and experience leadership and followership are interchangeable.
Leadership development focuses on growing individual leaders. Leadership development takes into account the success factors for collective action.
Dialogue and co-operation are side issues or add-ons. The capacity of a leadership collective to ensure outcome-oriented dialogue and future-oriented collective action becomes a decisive success factor. Such a collective can be a loose structure of actors driving change together, or can develop into a multi-stakeholder governance structure (such as steering committee, councils etc.).

We need to shift from a self-centred consciousness to awareness of the larger whole. In the old paradigm, leadership focuses on the capacity of the individual who has a higher position and who needs to enlist followers in order to deliver results. In many organisations, both in the corporate world and the public sector, dialogue and attention to high quality collaboration relationships are still side issues, soft skills, add-ons. Most employee performance indicators do not measure the quality of collective human interaction. Yet, this is what counts most for results. The leader-centric paradigm is shifting. Global challenges can only be addressed when the joint capacity of leaders to become catalysts for change is realized. This capacity building will be the cornerstone of our response to global as well as local sustainability challenges. Our task is to make our inherent capacity for collective leadership more explicit, to bring it to the surface, to understand how it works. It is time to empower many more people to lead collectively towards a sustainable future.

Find out more about leadership as the capacity of a collective in the new Report to the Club of Rome: Stewarding Sustainability Transformations, Chapter 3 . The sets the scene for understanding transformative change in the context of sustainability as a stewarding task and a collective leadership challenge.

Or take a deep dive into the application of collective leadership by reading The Art of Leading Collectively .


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