Archive for December, 2015

Collective Leadership: A New Way To Lead in the Age of Sustainability

Contributed by Susan Camberis

Just as we’re seeing the emergence of new business models to address social, environmental, and economic challenges, so too are new leadership models beginning to emerge.

One such model was discussed on the Our Spheres of Influence Fall 2015 Virtual Fireside Chat. Collective Leadership: Harnessing “Human Systems” for Innovation featured three global experts who spoke about the model, its origins, and how companies are putting it to use with impressive results.

What is Collective Leadership?

Collective leadership refers to empowering individuals to step forward and lead when their strengths are most needed by the team. Very different from a traditional ‘command and control’ approach, collective leadership is more agile and seeks to connect people through shared purpose.

The original creative impulse for collective leadership grew out of Roelien Bokxem’s experiences in the financial sector in 2008 in the Netherlands, after witnessing government bailouts of institutions that no one ever imagined could need rescuing. Roelien and PresenceAtWork co-founder, Jane Weber (Autstralia), realized that one leader acting alone couldn’t have changed the outcome, and what was needed was a leadership paradigm shift, geared more toward teams and organizations.

As described by moderator Melissa O’Mara (U.S.), Founder of i3Activate and a collective leadership practitioner and trainer, leveraging the strength of the collective is especially relevant for sustainability work – where all functions have a role to play and important ideas can come from anywhere.

Collective leadership is based on three key principles:

1. Balance the ‘Doing’ and ‘Being’ of Leadership. This first principle is really about balance. According to Philippe Wits, former CEO of Ardanta (Netherlands) and current Director of Life Insurance at ASR, a global insurance company and pioneer of collective leadership, balance in leadership “doing” and “being” means bringing out the best in people.

2. Capitalize on Collective Leadership through System Dynamics. According to Roelien, the second principle is about leading from the whole versus the old ‘command and control’ paradigm, which wastes a lot of time. Systems awareness is key. In order for everyone to feel comfortable stepping forward, sometimes the formal leader needs to step back and simply offer support and encouragement. It’s a very different way of leading.

Philippe added, with collective leadership, it’s okay for the leader to say, “I don’t know,” but this can be difficult at first – especially when others don’t want to step forward. What’s critical is creating an environment where people know they matter. “People think they don’t matter. If you think that, you have no impact.”

3. Leading from the Emerging Future vs. The Past. For Roelien this principal is about “connecting the dots together versus being on a straight-line path.” Practically, this means balancing strategy and milestones alongside agile, unattached thinking.

How is collective leadership working in practice?

Philippe has led the adoption of collective leadership at ASR. The journey began with his leadership team committing to three 3-day retreats. Initially people were anxious about collective leadership and what it meant, but when leaders really “got it”, people started to realize who they really were and what they could contribute. Some of the biggest benefits of collective leadership are deeper connections, increased interpersonal safety, and greater independence.

According to Roelien, in a recent case study with Ardanta, in which the team interviewed all levels in the organization— including the CEO— implementing collective leadership in conjunction with lean principles has yielded productivity increases as high as 66%. The pervasive feeling expressed at all levels in the organization was a recognition that, “I’m okay and I feel confident stepping forward to lead.”

“Often people have forgotten how great they are,” according to Philippe. It takes a lot of confidence to really step forward. “When you feel okay with yourself, you tend to want to put yourself out there.”

What can sustainability leaders do to begin implementing the collective leadership principles? 

Work with your natural strengths. One of the tools used in collective leadership is a body-based strengths system – a shortcut to think about your own strengths during change. Melissa asked participants to consider the question: What role do you most naturally play in a change initiative?

Melissa suggested looking at that question through the lens of the following strengths:

I pilot ideas quickly
I connect people in a way that’s fun
I energize and inspire
I validate what’s feasible
I analyze all options and facts
I bring the vision of what’s possible (“stir the pot”)
I bring lots of practical ideas
I deliver on time
I keep harmony on the team

We each have skills and strengths in these various roles. When we’re more aware of where our strengths lie, and our environment supports bringing our strengths forward, we can lead more easily when the group needs us to ‘step up.’

Go slow to go fast. According to Roelien, one of the biggest things you can do is to allow yourself to slow down when making connections. The idea is to ‘go slow to go fast.’ For example, you might take the first hour of a 2-hour meeting to check-in and really connect with how people how are feeling, but the hour that follows is much more productive because everyone is present and fully engaged.

Focus on connection. As described by Philippe, “When I come into the office, I take a deep breath. I ask people, ‘How are you? How are you, really?’ I ask with no agenda, just be curious.” Philippe also spends more time just noticing and reflecting what he observes. For example, if he notices someone talking very quickly, he may say something like, “I notice that you are talking very fast. Are you okay?”

From an HR development perspective, I see collective leadership as a compelling combination of philosophies that leaders may recognize from participative and servant leadership models. In a day and age when we need to collectively engage with and solve harder problems through teams, it’s a model that sustainability leaders will benefit from understanding and integrating into their own practices. It also aligns with what employees say they want more of from their organizations, specifically greater purpose at work.

To listen to the full audio— with video for the first time (!)–  of our Winter 2015 global conversation, click here:

To learn more about collective leadership, connect with Melissa and PresenceAtWork on Twitter @melissaomara or LinkedIn:

PresenceAtWork is also kicking-off an Allies training program for Collective Leadership in February 2016. Here’s a link where you can learn more and register:

About the author:

Susan Camberis is a talent management and HR leader, recognized for her passion for learning and sustainability. She currently serves as the Vice President of Learning and Organizational Development for Executive Coaching Connections, a Chicago-based firm specializing in leadership solutions, team development, and organization effectiveness. From 1999 to 2013, Susan held various HR roles with Baxter, whose commitment to sustainability spans more than three decades.

Susan is completing a Leadership in Sustainability Management certificate from the University of Chicago’s Graham School. Her capstone research is focused on ways to enhance cross-functional communication between HR and Sustainability teams.

Susan created and moderates the open LinkedIn Group Leading Talent Sustainability, and her writing has been appeared in GreenBiz,, and PBS Next Avenue. Follow Susan on Twitter @susancamberis or connect with her on LinkedIn

December 16, 2015 at 12:06 am Leave a comment

10% of all proceeds are donated to the Academy for Global Citizenship.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email. You'll get tips and inspirational stories about "unlikely environmentalists!"

Join 5,594 other followers

Dr. Sarah’s tweets

Follow me on Twitter

Newsletter Signup Form

Sign up for the Spheres of Influence Newsletter! Subscribe to the Newsletter