Collaborative Leadership: 10 Steps On How To Lead By Example

by Daniel Hannig

There are some qualities that are expected when it comes to leadership; leaders are decisive, they maintain order, they initiate projects and drive strategy. A leader is supposed to know best, that’s why they are leading. However, the fault in this way of thinking is that, in a team of 10, only one person has the power to act on their ideas. The other nine employees, no matter how brilliant they are, are chiefly responsible for realizing their leader’s vision. They may feel comfortable offering their own ideas, but they are subject to the approval (or refusal) of their team leader. This is different under collaborative leadership. But what is it exactly?

Collaborative leadership or management is when leaders get their hands dirty, share responsibilities with their team, and direct their teams toward operating as a collective. While leaders may often lend a hand to meet a deadline or mitigate a crisis, collaborative leaders blur the lines around their leadership role to work side-by-side with their team.

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But what does collaborative leadership look like in practice?

Let’s say an employee comes to you with a problem. They have hit a wall and they are not really sure how to move forward. The stakes are high–a significant delay could set off a domino effect that blocks the rest of their team, and possibly others. A certain type of boss might refrain from getting involved, believing instead that the employee should come to a solution themselves. Or, a boss might simply not have enough time to untangle the crisis.

For a collaborative leader, the problem is moot: they were involved the whole time, so an employee would not have to inform them of an issue. Their team works together as a group, fluidly removing blockers for each other as they arise. To a collaborative leader, all work has the potential to be teamwork. They understand that by tackling work on a team-level, rather than an individual level, even blurring the lines between positions, the potential of their team increases exponentially. When stakeholders’ creativity is combined, their output becomes more than the sum of its parts.

“It is literally true that you can succeed best and quickest by helping others to succeed.” —Napoleon Hill

Here is one example of how collaborative leadership might work. Say that you are a Lead Designer, responsible for a small team of junior designers. If one designer is struggling to find the right symbol to illustrate a product they are developing a logo for, as the Lead Designer, you might schedule a sketching session. The entire team of designers would get in a room together, and put pencil to paper to come up with a range of options that could work. That way, all of the designers could collaborate, free associating symbols that might be a good foundation for a logo. Even though you, as an experienced designer, might have had an idea as to how they could approach creating the logo, you didn’t push your own recommendations on to their work. You didn’t instruct your junior designer to use certain shapes or colors. Instead, you opened the floor to a team of designers to exchange ideas and build on each other’s suggestions. It’s likely that your struggling employee was exposed to many more ideas and perspectives than they would have if they simply took your direction as their boss.

This scenario might sound familiar, depending on your field, or maybe just like typical workplace conversation. But it’s actually a quality–albeit small–example of group collaboration. No one was hesitant to ask for help, and everyone was willing to work together to come up with a better outcome. As a manager, you activated your team for assistance instead of quickly firing off the first solution you could think of. Collaborative leadership doesn’t necessarily have to be an entire initiative that you roll out–you can start with smaller steps.

Collaborative skills aren’t necessarily common to all managers. They can be developed, certainly, but it’s likely that, looking around your office, you already know a few colleagues who embody a collaborative spirit. Let’s take a look at some of the characteristics of a collaborative leader, and collaborative teams in general. As you read through them, remember that this isn’t an all-or-nothing leadership style, so take the time to consider how putting some energy toward each one might have a beneficial effect on issues within your organization.

A Collaborative Leadership Is One That…

team working together

  1. Builds relationships
  2. True collaboration depends heavily on the authentic relationships of its participants, instead of pairing up team members and expecting them to instantly work well together. Team-building activities as simple as frequent after-work drinks early on in a new employee’s tenure can help them to develop bonds with their teammates that facilitate innovation.

  3. Relinquishes control
  4. A good leader understands that no one ever has total control over a situation. By seeking to inspire their teams to perform well, rather than controlling with an iron grip, collaborative leaders create an environment that allows team members’ comfort and confidence to grow.

  5. Values trust
  6. “Remember, teamwork begins by building trust. And the only way to do that is to overcome our need for invulnerability.” —Patrick Lencioni

    Trust is the glue that holds an interactive team together. A collaborative leader seeks to build their team members’ trust in themselves and each other. By communicating openly, sharing information, building friendships, and working together, employees learn to trust one another and have faith that their hard work will be returned in kind by those whose confidence they’ve earned.

  7. Needs a diverse array of skills
  8. Collaborative leaders needs skills that hold value across the board. Management abilities like analytical, motivational, and good planning skills are ideally paired with job-specific skills they share with multiple members of their team.

  9. Sees strategy as a team sport
  10. When an organization’s mission belongs only to management, it can never serve an effective motivation for rank and file employees. Collaborative leaders understand this, and take pains to incorporate their team members in the planning process so that everyone feel a personal stake in their company’s future.

  11. Takes risks
  12. Without the freedom and confidence to take risks, employees can have a difficult time being achieving personal and professional growth. Truly collaborative leaders understand this, and aim to foster a team environment that makes members feel comfortable taking creative risks.

  13. Respects diversity
  14. A study at the University of Michigan found that groups composed of members with diverse levels of knowledge and skills performed even better at solving a difficult task than homogenous teams made up of those with a higher objective ability. It makes sense when you think about it: Diversity forces group members to consider perspectives other than their own, whereas homogeneous–even highly skilled–teams frequently risk creating an echo chamber that reinforces the status quo. True collaborators build diverse teams that work together.

  15. Disregards the silo mentality
  16. Lastly, whether it’s individual team members or whole team, when information isn’t shared, the ensuing power struggles, work redundancies, and missed deadlines consistently lower productivity and engagement.

Remember, collaborative leadership benefits everyone. When stakeholders share each other’s burdens, they also share each other’s goals. In an inclusive environment, every success becomes a cause for group celebration, and stress is distributed more evenly. After all, what hurdle can feel insurmountable with your boss working right by your side?


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