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Collaborative leadership in voluntary organisations
Collaborative leadership in voluntary organisations

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3.3 Leadership as the management of tensions

This third idea explores leadership in collaborative contexts as the management of tensions. At the heart of this idea is the concept of a tension between ‘collaborative advantage’, and ‘collaborative inertia’ (Huxham and Vangen, 2005). Organisations enter collaborations to achieve collaborative advantage, something they could not achieve alone. But in practice, all too many collaborations fall into collaborative inertia – they progress slowly, achieve little, disintegrate into sectional interests and fail.

For example, the collaborative advantage of coordinating support for refugees might be that a greater number of refugees receive help, or that the needs of refugees are met more holistically than organisations could achieve if working alone. Identifying the actual or potential collaborative advantage of a collaboration is an important task for those involved in leading collaborative projects, working groups and partnerships. Indeed, if it is impossible to identify the potential collaborative advantage of a specific collaboration, then you may want to ask why it is happening at all.

However, all too often collaborative partnerships and projects become stuck in discussions about structure (terms of reference, membership, accountability, etc.) and the processes of decision-making. Individuals find it impossible to reconcile the demands of their organisation and the need to achieve collaborative arrangements which involve compromise, and the ceding of power. Discouraged by slow progress and lack of achievement, individuals disengage from the collaboration, reinforcing the tendency to fail. The challenge for leadership is to manage the tension between the potential for collaborative advantage and the tendency towards collaborative inertia (Huxham and Vangen, 2005).

Activity 5 Advantage and inertia

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes

Identify one example of collaboration with another organisation which features regularly in your diary (or select an example from Ellen’s Family Time story). You will work on this example through the rest of this week’s study. Try to identify an example that is part of a long-term inter-organisational collaboration. For example,

  • participating in an inter-agency forum
  • managing joint service delivery
  • delivering an inter-agency plan for clients with complex needs
  • negotiating and delivering a shared action plan with organisations working in a locality
  • designing, delivering and monitoring a joint funding bid
  • developing a joint needs assessment that informs the ongoing work of collaborating organisations.

First, identify the potential collaborative advantage of this collaboration. Write this down in 50 words or less.

Now identify the potential areas of collaborative inertia. Again, write this down in 50 words or less.

Finally, identify any actions you might take that increase the likelihood of collaborative advantage and reduce the tendency towards collaborative inertia. Try to focus here on what you can do, rather than on the factors that constrain your actions.

Vangen and Huxham (2003) write about the dilemmas which the advantage/inertia tension raises for individuals. They argue that tackling these dilemmas at times involves engaging simultaneously in activities which appear diametrically opposed to each other. On the one hand, these activities are focused on supporting the involvement and engagement of all of those collaborating, making sure everyone has a say and that all points of view are represented (‘in the spirit of collaboration’). On the other hand, they are focused on making things happen in a very pragmatic way, so that the collaboration does not become stuck – this sometimes means taking a less than inclusive approach which Vangen and Huxham (2003) describe as ‘collaborative thuggery’. Collaborative leadership therefore involves managing a tension between a spirit or ideology of collaboration and pragmatism. In other words, there is a compromise or trade-off to be made between a very inclusive participative approach and a pragmatic focus on getting things done in an effective way that does not consume too much time and resources.

Although Vangen and Huxham’s original research focused on the activities of partnership managers, we suggest that the approach of managing tensions is a useful one for anyone ‘leading’ in collaborative contexts, including ‘champions’ from voluntary organisations. It helps to reflect on the trade-offs and compromises you are willing to make (on your own behalf and behalf of your organisation) to make things happen through inter-organisational collaboration.

For example, in a study of voluntary sector leaders collaborating with public agencies, I (Carol) found that these leaders encounter a tension between distinctiveness and incorporation (Jacklin-Jarvis, 2015). On the one hand, collaboration with the powerful public sector puts them at risk of incorporation into that sector’s agenda; on the other hand, too much emphasis on the distinctiveness of the voluntary sector risks exclusion from the resources and opportunities which the public sector brings to the collaboration table. Therefore, voluntary sector leaders working collaboratively with public sector partners can be seen negotiating a continual trade-off between assertions of voluntary sector distinctiveness and acceptance of the public sector’s agenda and priorities.

You will continue to explore this idea of managing tensions in the next activity.

Activity 6 Tensions, compromises and trade-offs

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes

Return to the collaboration you identified in Activity 5. Respond to the following questions in your learning journal [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]   (or, if you focused on an example from Ellen’s story, then try to imagine yourself in her position in this activity):

  • what kind of tensions arise in this context?
  • what compromises and trade-offs do you find yourself making?
  • are you comfortable with these compromises from your own perspective and from the perspective of your organisation?

Make sure you title the post with the week number and the number of this activity, Week 6 Activity 6.


Understanding the advantage/inertia tension at the heart of collaboration helps you to understand that compromises and trade-offs are inevitable. Differences that draw organisations to collaborate are also the differences that have potential to pull them apart. So leading in these contexts is always about working with difference, trying to make things happen in a context where there are competing interests and objectives, as well as shared purposes. Sometimes this means that a participative and inclusive approach to leadership is not possible because it is simply too slow or resource intensive. To make things happen, it can be necessary to be pragmatic or even authoritative, taking as many people with you as possible.

The tensions approach to leadership is a complex idea, but fortunately, Huxham and Vangen (2005) offer an accessible way of thinking about this through the metaphor of gardening, comparing leadership in collaborative contexts to the nurturing of a garden that is lovingly tended and ruthlessly pruned.

A picture of a garden that is carefully laid out, colour coordinated, with nothing out of place.
Figure 4 A well-tended garden

In order to create a beautiful garden and avoid a wilderness, all gardeners know that they must pull up weeds, prune branches, and sweep away leaves, as well as feed and protect tender plants. In a similar way, working collaboratively across organisational boundaries requires continual attention – or nurturing – to build and sustain relationships and achieve something together that each organisation could not have achieved alone – collaborative advantage.

In the following activity, you will work with the idea that leading within a collaboration can be thought of through the metaphor of nurturing a garden. You will apply this metaphor to your own context.

Activity 7 Nurturing the collaboration garden

Timing: Allow about 30 minutes

In this activity, you will continue to think about the collaboration you identified in Activity 5, creating a picture of a garden to help you reflect on how the organisations and individuals involved in this collaboration contribute to its nurturing.

  • First, reflect on what this example of inter-organisational collaboration is trying to achieve, and give your collaboration garden a name that reflects this purpose. For example, the garden of child wellbeing in Leicester or the garden of an active older life in York.
  • Next, think about the kind of plants that the organisations involved in the collaboration are trying to grow together. Label these plants in the diagram. For example, a tree might represent a shared database or an agreed plan of action. Flowers might represent a healthier local population, more children engaged in sport or better access to art, heritage or the theatre. Try to be as specific as possible as you label the plants in your garden.
  • Think about how the participants involved in the collaboration bring different skills, resources, and expertise together to nurture the garden. This is the watering, feeding and tending of the garden. Draw in these activities.
  • Now reflect on activities through which different participants act in a more pragmatic way to get things done – perhaps making decisions behind the scenes, leading in a directive way, excluding others, or playing the politics, as Vangen and Huxham (2003) suggest. Draw these into your diagram as the pruning and weeding activities.

Try to be as creative as possible in drawing your garden, then take a photo of your picture and post it on the discussion forum. Add a comment on how drawing your garden has helped you think about the nurturing of this particular example of inter-organisational collaboration. Make sure you post your comments within the correct thread for this activity. You may also want to write about this at greater length in your learning journal.


An example of collaborative working represented as a garden:

An illustration of a garden, with labels added at various points.
Figure 5 Collaboration represented as a garden