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Collaborative leadership in voluntary organisations
Collaborative leadership in voluntary organisations

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2 Collaborative leadership

In our other short course, Developing leadership practice in voluntary organisations [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] , we introduced learners to the contested nature of the concept of leadership – the difficulty of reaching a definition which captures its elusive quality. We suggested that leadership is both slippery and significant, and offered our working definition:

Leadership is a collaborative, political and democratic practice that provides direction, energy and critical engagement on issues that are made to matter.

The important thing to notice here is the clear tension between this idea of leadership offering direction but also the need to bring people with you in leadership practice. Practising collaborative leadership always involves engaging with the contradiction between the need to give people direction and the need for robust participation. We do not try to somehow solve this difficulty because it is precisely at the heart of this tension that much of the promise of collaborative leadership is to be found: a balance that is never solved but which acts as a continuous source of promise and challenge.

This eight-week course focuses in particular on the collaborative dimension of leadership – in short, how leadership brings together diverse groups of people within and across organisational and sector boundaries in order to achieve something that they cannot achieve alone. Here we offer our working definition of collaborative leadership:

Collaborative leadership is a political and democratic practice that provides direction, energy and critical engagement on issues that are made to matter, by bringing together diverse groups of people with the intent of achieving something they cannot achieve alone.

If leadership is best understood as a practice (rather than as the characteristics of any individual), then so too is collaboration. To put this simply, collaboration only happens when people make it happen, even though we often refer to ‘a collaboration’ as if it had a life of its own. Collaborations are shaped by people, the relationships between them, the technologies they use and the processes in which they engage to reach agreements, develop shared purposes, frame problems and solutions and determine direction.

Collaborative leadership is enacted by individuals with management positions and without. Individuals are often required by their work responsibilities to provide direction and energy for groups of people for whom they have no hierarchical responsibility, nor do they have any tangible resources to incentivise these groups to engage with a particular task or concern.

You will notice that we want you to think of yourselves in relationship to leadership differently – to rethink and reflect upon your identity in relation to leadership. Identity shapes and influences how you think about and practice leadership. You will explore identity further next week.

Picture of a chain of five people passing colourful puzzle pieces up to a sixth person who is standing up on a ledge.
Figure 1 Sharing the leadership burden