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The Power of Collective Leadership

11 April 2011 9,231 views 12 Comments

by Denisa Oosthuizen

Head of the Deloitte Centre of Collective Leadership (DCCL), Stephen Langton was in March in South Africa to promote the New York Times best-seller “As One” by authors Mehrdad Baghai and James Quigley. Deloitte’s biggest global project up to date in studying effective collaborations, “As One” is based on the knowledge behind collaborative efforts and collective leadership rather than the leader’s often “command-and-control” approach.

In this exclusive interview with WealthWise magazine, Stephen, who has specialized in the field of collective leadership for the past fifteen years, consulting various CEOs, Chairmen, global leaders, Fortune 500 and Global 1000 organizations, talks about the new archetypes of collective leadership and how leaders can succeed in today’s global economy.
WealthWise magazine: What is “As One” collective leadership? How is it different to the traditional leadership taught in business schools?
Stephen Langton: For the next three months we have been invited to be the key speakers at Stanford Business School, Harvard Business School, London Business School among others because of the perception of “As One” collective leadership as being not the traditional leadership, but the new direction in leadership. For us, collective leadership is as much as the opposite ends of the old leadership coin: both the leadership implication which refers to telling people what to do and the collective mindset, which is people saying what they want to do themselves.
We have always associated that with the political meaning of capitalism and communism; we’ve been trained to think that there is leadership and there is followership. And yet, that cannot be the case, one cannot exist without the other. The new term of “collective leadership” is deliberately bringing together the opposite ends of the coin, but the concept itself is not new at all. You can find it superbly written in the writing of Lao Tzu 3000 years ago in which he said: “Of our best leaders, their people say we do it ourselves”.
If you look at the leaders who most succeeded, they haven’t been doing all the work; they just set up an inspiring, safe environment where people are clear and capable to want to work for themselves; and that’s where we are going back now.
WealthWise magazine: So what would be the role of the leader?
Stephen Langton: That would be the most important question to ask. For far too many times we have been told that leaders are the conditions of success. They are paid to be the condition of this success. Success is credited to them, failure is blamed on them. And yet, a leader is just one human being, fragile, with moods and changes in its vision. In collective leadership, what we want to enforce is that the leader will be celebrated for creating the conditions for others to succeed. There is a difference between telling people what to do and teaching people; it looks so easy, yet we haven’t been doing it.
Let me give an example based on my work in the past four years. I have been called to assist companies where the management was failing. A large number of organizations’ failures are linked to the failure of its leaders. One of the first questions I ask the leaders is “When was the last time you have asked your people for advice?”. One of the leadership weapons we haven’t been using is the ability to ask questions. Leaders must have the humility to say “I don’t know the answer, but as a team we will find it out”.
At Deloitte, what we are doing is to deliberately give the management and the CEOs the tools and methodology so they can create and ensure that these conditions are met.
WealthWise magazine: Is this the purpose of the Centre for Collective Leadership?
Stephen Langton: It is the first time we had such a Centre that serves every country, because counties are in fact an expression of collective leadership. Our purpose will be to invest in understanding and advancing the knowledge of collective leadership – that’s our primary goal. We will also be communicating through books, publications, websites, the media in general as it is a collective voice. We are moving into a phase which is developing a leadership programme for management and CEOs that actually shows them how to create these conditions.
WealthWise magazine: The new eight archetypes of collective leadership defined through the self-organizing map (SOM) model are defined by power dispersion and creativity – what are the other characteristics that were accounted for this classification?
Stephen Langton: We are proud to be the “scientists” in this field. It was the extraordinary forensic accounting software that found patterns when other variables exist, much like a detective software that scouts anomalies within a financial crisis. The patterns it found explain the conditions for people to choose to cooperate. There are organizations where people don’t need to cooperate, networks with unique tasks and functions. There are many variables involved, but the clearest that define the patterns were fitting on these two drivers: where did your task get manufactured or where does it come from (you or your boss)? and when you have got the task, how much freedom do you get to interpret and deliver it?
The eight archetypes explain this better than anything: for instance, in the Conductor and Orchestra archetype, there is a boss (the conductor) and not much variance of changing how the piece of music will sound. One cannot interpret tasks in any other way than just based on the skills they have (the orchestra).  In the Architect and Builders, the architect has the blueprint, but the engineers have to make the decisions every day in exactly how it’s going to be achieved.
In total we have identified eight themes where we are watching cooperation happen deliberately and organizations that have blends of these themes, which we call “split archetypes”. Deloitte is an example of this – we have all eight archetypes in any of our firms. This is normal – the people on the media side of the firm all about creativity, in the audit side, you cannot stray from the regulations.
The question here is not “How do we get everybody in the same culture?”, but “How do we accurately see and structure chaos?”. We have developed this benchmark system to determine  and choose the appropriate “chaos”.
WealthWise magazine: How important is the structure of the organization itself (formal or informal) in fostering a collective leadership?
Stephen Langton: I have started my career in designing structures for organizations and I understand the importance of an organization’s structure. However I don’t believe it will be important in this case. You can have a very flat structure, which is purely a command and control archetype. But let’s look closer at start-up entrepreneurs.
How many entrepreneurs are themselves the conditions for their start-up succeeding? They are working with their people, but since the beginnings it’s their show and as much as they want to be popular, they are the dominant star and the model will best be described as the Conductor and Orchestra: “It’s my vision, I have a specific way I want us to grow, you are great at what you are doing, but you need to help me with my plan”. Most entrepreneurial start-ups are classically very flat; there is no luxury of multiple levels. As they get successful, the old model cannot continue to work for the optimum level to be achieved and the question that needs to be answered is “What are the conditions of success here?”.
WealthWise magazine: How can an organization identify its collective leadership archetype?
Stephen Langton: We have this impressive software tool that surveys an organization. The root of it is simply asking questions, but the brilliance of the tool is how it is able to diagnose the data. It will ask, for example, how you are lead now and how would you like being led to succeed. There isn’t a specific formula that shows you will succeed with a specific archetype.
The best to explain this is to look at Cirque du Soleil. The way they are designing their wonderful performances is very collective: everybody has a voice. But imagine that in all their performance the lights go black and the fire alarm goes off: in that moment, how do they need leading? They won’t need a leader who brainstorms with each on how to exit the building. In that moment they want someone to scream “Everybody listen to my voice, follow me out of this room” and so on.
It’s a brutal command and control because that task needs it. The reason we put together the three: the archetype, the identity and the task is because without the task, the others are not helpful. Profiling people to understand what the task is gives them the context to source the leadership and choose how they want to be lead.
Other example is the integration and restructuring of distressed banks in a downfall economy. Thousands of people are forced to work together as a result of a merger. The generation of leaders that has been leading the bank for the last twenty years was doing to these people what he thought they needed, by leaving them alone. The surveys of these banks showed that people were screaming for command and control: “Tell us what is going to happen. Command me”. We can’t say, for example, that command and control is bad for an organization. The right leadership style is the one that is right for the group of people that has to fulfill a specific task.
WealthWise magazine: How can leaders share the As One behaviour (working As One) understanding with their teams?
Stephen Langton: There are basically three ways we recommend. We have clients who are willing to do an online survey that shows them the outcome. Another option is for leaders to give their people the book “As One” and find the outcome they need through reading and answering the questions inside. The third way we have failed on doing it so far is a simply discussion between leaders and their teams. It can be as simple as a discussion in a coffee shop.
The revolution is here about the leader saying not “Here is what I want you to do”, but asking “What are the conditions that would help you succeed?” and listening. To myself, whom I dedicated years of my career to understanding leadership, that is the revolution we never had.
Often we are called in situations when the boardroom of a company would say “Our CEO is failing” and “Our management team is failing”.
We call this “impostor’s syndrome” where people in the leadership roles are under challenge and they have to say “I don’t know what I’m doing and I don’t want other people to find out” and hence the leader itself can become aggressive or passive. The aggressive leader’s mindset will be something like this: “I will make all the decisions now, you follow me”, which doesn’t work. The passive leader would say: “I’m not making any more decisions until the situation changes”. And they are not doing anything.
Both of them create distraction. The reason why we haven’t got this simple outcome is everything to do with leaders’ feelings. This should have been primarily a technique of recovering in a downturn because it’s a generous technique for leaders to ask their people when do they need leading and how do they want it. In a boom, it looks inappropriate in an organization.
WealthWise magazine: In terms of a crisis, is it important for leaders to review the archetype model?
Stephen Langton: Whenever there’s a change, it becomes easier to get it right. When an organization goes from a long-term success into a crisis, at that moment everybody is looking to be led. The challenge though is where we no longer have a crisis and we are letting people lead themselves. We’re coming out of a crisis which was about survival. We are going in a crisis which is about sustaining performance.
WealthWise magazine: How do you see the world in the next five to ten years in terms of leadership?
Stephen Langton: A lot of this is geared towards the generation who is going to inherit. The way things are now, I don’t think we see too much change. But certainly, there is a generation coming through which is far more informed, far more aware of this topic, with a greater instinct to be selfless. The difference this time is the access to technology, the access to be able to communicate together. You can’t hide leadership anymore. An active leadership now is not governed by how people experience it, but by witnesses (think Twitter for example). The new generation will perceive collective leadership as common sense, not revolution.
WealthWise magazine: How would you describe collective leadership in the African region, based on the study and the work of The Deloitte Center for Collective Leadership?)
Stephen Langton: South Africa, for example, has been an inspiration for us worldwide. The country itself won’t trumpet and push it, but we do. If you look at innovation, South Africa has put over 40% growth into investing in education in the past three years. To an extent so often in the international press, South Africa has always had the power of unions since the middle of the 19th century, which is a collective voice of employees. The collective power displayed there is simply amazing.
WealthWise magazine: Going forward, what kind of leadership do you see in Africa?
Stephen Langton: We cannot specify, but we can look at the country’s current economy. In a booming economy, it is far more common to have a leadership style which is geared towards growth, aspiration. If a nation has a strong growth aspiration and a strong economy, high levels of employment, it would likely lead to a model which is considering the authority and power of the employees.
In a struggling nation, you would probably most identify a command and control structure because that is what people want. I think we see a transition in South Africa. What we see now happening in Egypt and in Libya resembles, for example, Poland’s revolutionary act in 1989 and creates a different leadership, a leadership people need and can identify with it based on how they want to be led.
Stephen Langton heads Deloite’s Centre for Collective Leadership in the UK. He can be contacted at slangton@deloitte.co.uk. For more information about As One project, visit www.asone.org.
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