Building Cultures of Collective Leadership

Building Cultures of Collective Leadership:
A New Role for Leaders in the 21st Century


Leadership accomplishes three main tasks: set direction, create alignment, and generate commitment. While traditional hierarchies assign these tasks to a single person at the top of the hierarchy, groups of people can also achieve these tasks together. These teams practice collective leadership to generate vision, create solutions together, and move their organization forward. However, a culture must exist within which these groups can come together and flourish. In the 21st century, leaders will spend more time as social architects, forging networks and coalitions from which the collectives will grow. Leaders will shape organizational culture and structure to give these groups freedom to succeed. Most importantly, they will help their teams realize the qualities of effective leadership within themselves. 

What is Collective Leadership?

Collective Leadership is more than teaching everyone lists of all the positive qualities leaders have shown through the years. Transition Coach William Bridges points out books about leadership often “say that everything is leadership. Everybody needs to be a leader.” This trend makes the idea of leadership “cover so many positive qualities and positive behaviors that everything becomes leadership” (Alexander, 2004, p. 41).

So, rather than construct a list of qualities exhibited by leaders, Wilfred Drath looks at leaders’ three primary products. Leadership accomplishes three main tasks: setting direction, creating alignment, and generating commitment (Drath, 2004, p.175-6). Drath argues that once we know these intended products, groups can achieve them without a single leader.

We can see Drath’s conception of the future of leadership as collective leadership: the self-direction of teams. If we create a culture where groups lead themselves, then leaders will move into roles of people who foster culture. Leaders of the future, like gardeners, will initiate and inspire the growth of teams who can develop and achieve their own goals.

Essentials of Creating Cultures of Collective Leadership

It requires skills to generate and sustain an organizational culture. As Nonaka points out in his 1988 case study of the Honda City project, several things need to happen for success at the organizational, group, and individual level. Leaders in top management focus, however, on clarifying decision premises (how we will judge what is best) and designing organizational structures. They also allocate resources, making sure groups have the resources they need to succeed, and prioritizing limited resources between multiple groups. Top managers will interact with their groups to show their personal support and gather information (Nonaka, 1988, p. 14). Nonaka’s study also challenges the assumption that all vision comes from the top. It suggests vision can arise from within the workers’ teams (ibid, p. 17). They can choose their own direction. Leaders focus on setting target levels for the team’s performance, plans for the future, budgets, and communicating with everyone involved (Thompson, 2000, pp. 55-7).

For full effectiveness in guiding their creative teams, leaders need not just these structural skills but Goleman’s “emotional intelligence” – people skills. To forge coalitions requires diplomacy. Diplomacy requires tact, cultural sensitivity, and the willingness to reach across cultural barriers. It requires charisma to project a positive image, being someone people enjoy working with to build teams. It utilizes contacts that form a network of supporters and allies (Campbell, 2004, pp. 31-33). Creating culture grows out of personal interactions with people, communicating, and connecting.

Does Collective Leadership Eliminate Leaders?

Even when groups lead themselves, they often exist within a greater hierarchy where they have accountabilities. It takes a leader to organize them and give them a general mission, then let them explore and create a solution within those parameters. The Honda City case study exemplifies this. The Vice President of Research and Development appointed a chief researcher as Team Leader before setting the team to their problem (Nonaka, 1988, p. 9-10). The group had autonomy, but within the company structure. They found their own solutions, but someone gave them the basic problem – and had final approval of the solutions.

Therefore, we cannot reasonably expect that collective leadership eliminates singular leaders. Rather, it changes their roles into those of people who forge strong teams, match people and roles wisely, and help the team measure their performance. Leaders will connect people, and help them stay connected. “Getting more people working together in more ways increases the likelihood that people who are able to make the needed changes themselves will become influential in the leadership process. We call this connected leadership” (Drath, 2004, p. 177).

Often a successful collective begins due to the efforts of one strong leader. He or she builds an alliance of like-minded people with similar vision. When the group reaches a certain size, they retain collective spirit by appointing from within their ranks a council of leaders rather than a single figurehead. Consider Spain’s anarchist collective city, Marinaleda. It arose from the vision of one man (Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo) who forged partnerships, and maintains a council to make decisions, plan for the future, and allocate resources (Hancox, 2012). Collectivism does not mean society will have no need for leaders.

Concepts in Action: Personal Experience

Working in complex and diverse organizational cultures tests a leader’s ability to connect and guide teams. Experience teaches me that we usually assume people will have the same kind of reactions to things as we do. But, their cultures – aspects of their demographics and their world views – often lead them to respond in a totally different way. In America, we might cross our legs at a business meeting. But in Japan, showing someone the sole of your shoe causes offense. Training and exposure overcome these misunderstandings. We learn about other cultures, interact with them, and learn to respect their differences and commonalities. Often the small things, like learning how to say hello in someone’s native language, show that you genuinely care for someone’s culture.

Once our barriers come down, we can build collectives or shape their growth. Often I provide leadership by facilitating discussions with teams. They need to address practical matters, brainstorm, or develop a plan for the future. Asking the right questions can lead to brilliant answers from the group. Framing the context of the problem in another way can foster insights by the group. Helping bridge communication gaps between different parties, especially when someone has taken offense, requires tact and the ability to see from both perspectives. All the while, we work towards a group consensus that feels inspired. People then feel a personal commitment to the solutions they create. Consensus demonstrates their alignment.

When the groups are healthy, I can influence and oversee many of them. They develop their own visions and their own directions. Collective leadership, therefore, under a guiding hand, can accomplish more than singular control of all the details.


Leadership, then, comprises a host of important skills directed at achieving the three tasks of leadership: set direction, create alignment, and generate commitment. Once these tasks are understood, however, groups and team can collectively identify problems they face, and create solutions. They can choose a direction, align within their team on that vision, and demonstrate commitment to achieving their goals. Collective action still requires leaders, leaders with the interpersonal skills to create the organizational cultures where they can grow.


Alexander, J. 2004. Leading transition: A talk with William Bridges. In Wilcox, M. and Rush, S., Eds., The CCL Guide to Leadership in Action, pp. 35-44. Jossey Bass: San Francisco, CA.

Campbell, D. 2004. Nine keys to good leadership. In Wilcox, M. and Rush, S., Eds., The CCL Guide to Leadership in Action, pp. 29-33. Jossey Bass: San Francisco, CA.

Drath, W. 2004. Leading together: Complex challenges require a new approach. In Wilcox, M. and Rush, S., Eds., The CCL Guide to Leadership in Action, pp. 1719. Jossey Bass: San Francisco, CA.

Hancox, D. August 15, 2012. The Spanish Robin Hood. The Guardian. Retrieved from

Nonaka, I. Spring, 1988. Toward middle-up-down management: Accelerating information creation. Sloan Management Review, pp. 9-18.

Thompson, I. 2000. Rewarding teamwork: compensation and performance appraisals. In Making the Team: A Guide for Managers, pp. 35-58.

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