Fostering Collective Leadership

No time in history have we needed system leaders more than ever. We face a host of systemic challenges beyond the reach of existing institutions and their hierarchical authority structures. Sensing this need, countless collaborative initiatives have arisen in the past decade as a result. Unfortunately, more often than not they have floundered because they failed to foster the collective leadership necessary within and across the collaborating organizations. In addition, many of us are “swimming in the same river” so to speak as we try to cultivate collective leadership in diverse settings in our organizations. To be a successful system leader you need to foster proper collective leadership.

Fostering Collective Leadership

System leaders do a handful of things well. They build relationships based on deep listening, and have networks of trust and collaboration. In addition, they have the ability to see reality through the eyes of people very different from themselves and they can encourage others to be more open as well. As these system leaders emerge, situations previously suffering from polarization and inertia become more open, and what were previously seen as intractable problems become perceived as opportunities for innovation. Short-term reactive problem solving becomes more balanced with long-term value creation.

There are three core capabilities that system leaders need to develop in order to foster proper collective leadership:


The first is the ability to see the larger system. In any complex setting, people typically focus their attention on the parts of the system most visible from their own vantage point. This usually results in arguments about who has the right perspective on the problem. Helping people see the larger system is essential to building a shared understanding of complex problems. This understanding enables collaborating organizations to jointly develop solutions not evident to any of them individually and to work together for the health of the whole system rather than just pursue symptomatic fixes to individual pieces.


The second capability involves fostering reflection and more generative conversations. Reflection means thinking about our thinking, holding up the mirror to see the taken-for-granted assumptions we carry into any conversation and appreciating how our mental models may limit us. Deep, shared reflection is a critical step in enabling groups of organizations and individuals to actually “hear” a point of view different from their own, and to appreciate emotionally as well as cognitively each other’s reality. This is an essential doorway for building trust where distrust had prevailed and for fostering collective creativity.


The third capability centers on shifting the collective focus from reactive problem solving to co-creating the future. Change often starts with conditions that are undesirable, but artful system leaders can help people move beyond just reacting to these problems to building positive visions for the future. This typically happens gradually as leaders help people articulate their deeper aspirations and build confidence based on tangible accomplishments achieved together. This shift involves not just building inspiring visions but facing difficult truths about the present reality and learning how to use the tension between vision and reality to inspire truly new approaches.

Final Thought

Having people grow within your organization requires a clearly defined pathway or some sort of particular gateway

Many business leaders espouse ideals like vision, purposefulness, and growing people to grow results. If these aims are so widely shared, then why are such organizations so rare? It’s because, sometimes we underestimate the commitment needed.


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