Rethinking leadership

Conventionally, we tend to think of leaders as those who are in positions of formal authority – and that leadership is a quality that is ‘possessed’ by these individuals. The association of leadership with the individual feeds into deeply held ideas about what makes a ‘good’ leader; words like ‘strength’, ‘charisma’, ‘persuasion’ are typically used.

Yet, if we step back, we can see this is a rather narrow idea of leadership which, although dominant, can and should be challenged. Professor Joseph Raelin of Northeastern University, whose research explores how organisations might become ‘leaderful’, suggests an alternative view of leadership as ‘practice’. Instead of a set of traits held by an individual, Raelin (2016) argues that leadership “emerges and unfolds through day-to-day experiences”, through the activity of the group, their social interactions, reflections and responses to each other.

When we view leadership as emerging from ‘collective meaning making’, rather than an individual leader’s actions, we can begin to think about how organisations might generate what Raelin calls ‘collaborative agency’ – the collective capacity to create positive change.

From distributed leadership to collaborative agency

Certainly, there has been widespread recognition that if organisations are to be resilient and adapt to rapid change, they need to shift away from hierarchical models of leadership – where decision-making is controlled by the few – to ‘flatter’, distributed structures, where interconnected teams have the autonomy to change and innovate. Yet, these models often still maintain a distinction between ‘leaders’, who set the direction, and ‘followers’, who are invited to participate in carrying out the direction.

Raelin argues that if we want to create a ‘leaderful organisation’, we need to activate collaborative agency. He lays out four key leadership activities which are not tied to an individual leader, but rather form the ‘practice’ of leadership in the organisation:

  • Scanning: Seeking out resources and information which may contribute to solving a problem.
  • Signaling: Mobilizing action by coordinating the attention of others to a particular problem or action.
  • Weaving: Creating connections between individuals and groups, and between disperse activities and ideas, to build trust and a sense of coherence.
  • Stabilizing: Providing feedback and thinking evaluatively, to encourage continuous learning.

Importantly, as Raelin cautions, this form of leadership-as-practice does not often come naturally – particularly where our cultural and organisational norms tend towards hierarchy. To lay the foundations for collaborative agency, Raelin recommends three key ‘relational’ actions:

  • Inviting: Ensuring that the opportunity to contribute is open to all.
  • Unleashing: Encouraging active participation without fear of censure.
  • Reflecting: Thinking critically about the past, present and future, questioning assumptions and deeply held beliefs.

Growth through dialogue

As the actions outlined above suggest, at the core of developing collaborative agency is dialogue – within an organisation or a team, individuals listen to one another, reflect on different perspectives, and are open to being changed by this process. This reflects a social-constructivist view of learning: human development requires both interaction and reflection.

When we facilitate this kind of meaningful, open-ended dialogue, we create the conditions for growth and change, not only for the individual, but for the organisation. We move from seeing leadership as a quality held by a few, to something that can be practised by all.

Reference

Raelin, J. A. (2016). Imagine there are no leaders: Reframing leadership as collaborative agency. Leadership, 12(2), 131–158. https://doi.org/10.1177/1742715014558076