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Understanding Collective Leadership in our Workplaces

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Open Uni

‘Leadership’ in our workplaces, government and society as a whole has never been more in the spotlight. But is “Leadership” something that’s owned by a select few individuals? Or does the deeper reality show that leadership is a practice and a relationship that’s shared and understood by all of us?

In the latest edition of The Open University‘s ‘Talent, it's Our Future' series, Rhys Griffiths, the OU’s Business Relationship Manager in Wales, was joined by Carol Jacklin-Jarvis, Director of the Centre for Voluntary Sector Leadership at the OU and Owain Smolovic Jones, Director of REEF (Research into Employment, Empowerment and Futures) at the OU – discussing the nature of leadership itself, how leadership has evolved in the digital world, how hybrid working has affected the manager/employee relationship; and how organisations can benefit from evolving their leadership at all levels.

Owain was keen to keep the discussion practical and put the debate into context;

“Before we start the discussion and without wanting to dive too ‘deep’, it’s worth going a bit nerdy and wonky for a moment or two, to explain the theory of Collective  Leadership. I think you can define ‘Leadership’ in general as an individual's property and actions when taking the lead in an organisation. It’s important for accountability, but it also has limitations. We prefer to take the view that Leadership is a practice and process between people – what’s actually going on  between people, technologies and spaces – and this Collective Leadership is all about breaking paradigms and boundaries, to achieve much more. This is particularly effective in complex organisations or when addressing complex issues. For example, no one person can successfully lead us to solve climate change. But as a collective leadership, we can all solve it. Once you’ve got your head around this, you realise that even in the classic Command cultures, where people are told what to do, nothing can happen without ‘the followers’ being willing to be told what to do. So leadership is actually a relationship between people; and Collective Leadership is built upon this.”

Leadership is a practice and process between people

Carol illustrated the prevalence of Collective Leadership by highlighting how so many people now work across boundaries:

“It’s become evident that leadership isn’t about hierarchy, because hierarchies don’t work across boundaries. If we look at the pandemic, about how whole operations pivoted, how innovations were made, how people came together to share responsibilities and drive change, it all came about through collective leadership. So it’s worth reflecting on how our perceptions of leadership have shifted during COVID. There’s an element of contradiction in that people definitely looked for strong leadership from the top, but what has increasingly developed is a growing interdependency between organisations, agencies and communities – a different way of thinking and an understanding that leadership can happen in very different ways.”

A different way of thinking and an understanding that leadership can happen in many different ways

For Owain, “the challenge with Collective Leadership up until COVID was justifying it as a valuable and valid approach. There’s nothing like experience and evidence to clarify thinking – and I think the case for Collective Leadership has now been made. In some ways, it’s just saved our world. Without it, the pandemic emergency could have been much worse. It’s been the Collective Leadership of everyday workers and employees – adapting, improvising and being creative – who have made it all work. The lesson is that Collective Leadership works, perhaps mosty evidenced by the way the scientific community came together to create a vaccine in record time. So let’s stop wasting time looking at how leadership happens, let’s look at learning the lessons of Collective Leadership and refining it for our organisations.”

Collective Leadership has been proven to work. In many ways, it’s just saved our world. 

Rhys asked how the digital transformation of the past 18 months has changed the leadership dynamic – and what strategies now need to be adopted. Carol gave a powerful insight:

“I’m part of a European-wide programme looking at this question right now – which in itself couldn't happen without a digital structure of course! Doing things differently and thinking differently has challenged us all to learn new digital skills, and the next step is how do we move beyond learning the functional digital skills. How can we deliver a social mission digitally? How can we include everyone digitally? How can disabled people in Africa now have access to learning – because that is now possible. How can we move onwards digitally without relying on the few specialists in digital? How do we distribute the digital skills, just as we’re now distributing leadership, far more than ever? ”

Owain reinforced this:

“Carol and I have been working on a Leadership Programme for Inclusion Scotland, helping people with a wide range of disabilities develop their leadership capabilities – and this wouldn’t have been possible without digital. It means we need to think fundamentally differently about who’;s leading who and how organisations can be run. It’s not just the OU doing this. Lancaster University has been pioneering this thinking – changing mindsets so that life at work is a journey of continual improvement, giving people the space and technology they need to develop their skills and realise their potential.”

Followership is massively important in all this. We all have a responsibility to be a good Follower as well as a good Leader 

“Followership is a massive part of all of this” stresses Owain: “It’s impossible to separate ‘COVID’, ‘Followership' and ‘Trust’. During the pandemic, organisations had to trust their people – and people delivered. That trust needs to be rewarded or the bond between employees and employers – Leadership and Followership – will break. So organisations need to think twice about ‘rewarding’ people with more command-type practices or Fire-and-Rehire-type programmes. Followers can withdraw their followership at any time.”

Carol concurred:

“should we be looking to develop ‘Followership’ as well as ‘Leadership’ – developing one another? Is this now a part of Leadership development?”

Place is still incredibly important

The final question involved the importance of “Place” in the digital world.

“It’s still incredibly important” , emphasised Carol. “It's now about how we both engage with Place as well as harnessing the benefits of a connected digital world.” Owain agreed that Place is still vital “these are in many ways interesting times where we can think about integrating hybrid and distributed working, how we can work across boundaries and geographies; and how that will affect everyone’s ‘Identity’ as a worker. These really are transformational times for us all. ”

View this discussion in full here, or for more information on how the Open University can help you and your organisation skill for the future, please contact Rhys Griffiths at https://info1.open.ac.uk/bnw-contact-rhys-griffiths