Session 3: Managing through collective leadership
The third type of contemporary managerial approach adopted by organisations to influence employees’ behaviours is through collective leadership. Traditional representations about leadership – the process of influencing followers – associate it with successful and charismatic individuals such as Steve Jobs or Winston Churchill. However, the realities of leadership practice also correspond to alternative views of collective leadership such as collaborating effectively on projects or collective decision-making processes.
One way of looking at collective leadership is through what is known as distributed leadership. Accordingly, the argument of Gronn (2002) is that leadership is distributed among at least two individuals. In some cases, this involves that all the members of an organisation are leaders at least at some point in time. Additionally, this means that individuals in an organisation can be leading at specific times, as opposed to it being a constant role. For example, Sergei Brin, Erik Schmidt and Larry Page lead Google and Alphabet collaboratively. (Alphabet is a holding company with a number of different organisations including Google, YouTube, etc. Google refers to the organisation taking care of the web browser.) From the beginning, Brin and Page had a more technological approach and had been friends since their studies at Stanford, whereas Schmidt brought his business experience as he had been already a CEO of another large organisation in the IT (information technology) industry.
Another way of looking at collective leadership is through the lens of relational leadership. From this perspective, leadership is not simply located in a variety of individuals – as is the case for distributed leadership. Rather, it is produced inside collectives through the interactions between individuals and ‘processes by which certain understandings of leadership [are created]’ (Uhl-Bien, 2006, p. 255). For instance, members work in a specific team that is supposed to perform a task, such as writing a consultancy report for a team of consultants. Relational leadership will be constituted through what they regard as an effective team process of writing a report. This might involve being able to collaborate effectively, meeting the deadline, being accurate in terms of facts, and providing a creative solution in terms of problem solving. If some of the team members have a totally different understanding of leading, or if the whole of the team does not agree that their interactions constitute a form of leadership, it becomes impossible to say that leadership is being practised.
To put it simply, the distributed leadership approach focuses on multiple individual leaders, whereas a relational leadership approach sees leading as a practice emerging from the process of organisational collaboration.