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Week 1 Thinking about collaborative leadership


This week of learning introduces you to the concept of ‘wicked problems’ and how collaborative leadership can be used to help solve them. You will explore what collaborative leadership is, how your organisation can use it to approach ‘wicked problems’ and the challenges you may face in your sector. You will be asked to consider who your organisation collaborates with and the reasons behind collaboration. Towards the end of the week, you will update your learning journal and take part in a short quiz.

By the end of your studies this week, we hope that you will be able to:

  • describe some of the key characteristics of the voluntary sector that make collaborative leadership particularly necessary
  • offer an account which draws out different kinds of collaboration, and some of the possibilities and challenges of collaborative working
  • relate that account to the current environment for voluntary organisations and to acting and leading within that context
  • offer a critique of the account of collaborative leadership introduced in this week’s studies.

1 Why collaborate?

Meet Ellen. Ellen became the chief executive (CEO) of a local family support project, Family Time, four years ago. The purpose of Family Time is to provide support to the families of the local town in the form of advice and information, family activities and parenting classes.

Ellen’s story is based on the experiences of a real leader in the voluntary sector and other people whose experiences we have come across during our research and practice. It is an amalgamated and somewhat fictionalised account that gets to some of the big issues involved with collaborative leadership. You will return to Ellen’s story on and off throughout the eight weeks of this course to focus your exploration of collaborative leadership. Hopefully, Ellen’s story will in many ways be familiar to you, but also that it will raise questions, stimulate your thinking and encourage you to engage with the course content. To begin, please listen to the first part of Ellen’s story.

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This section of Ellen’s story brought out the fact that many of the people involved with the charity had somewhat different understandings of the problems facing the charity. We would suggest that these differences in understanding of the problems facing an organisation usually also signal different understandings regarding the purpose of an organisation in the first place.

Very few of us can agree in advance what the problems facing organisations really are. Are family problems a series of individual and unique private problems, for which people just need some one-off support on some practical things, such as learning about baby and infant dietary requirements, speech development and so on? Or are problems with families much more systemic and rooted in far larger problems connected to the education system, criminal justice system, health, social care and the local economy?

If we favour the first, then solutions might be more apparent – we can search our expert knowledge base for good practice and solutions. But if the problem begins to seep into the latter (a complex, systemic problem), then we need to start thinking about all kinds of interventions and experiments. The catch with the latter is that we do not know in advance what some of the solutions – or even the problems – might be. So we need to work together with people in different professions and areas of the community to start not only solving problems, but also working out what some of the problems are in the first place.

Grint (2005) refers to complex and contested problems as ‘wicked problems’: these are problems for which there is no prior agreement and no obvious solution based in current knowledge. These problems are wicked because they are unwieldy: one important way of approaching these problems is to make the various dimensions of a problem visible and to work in unfamiliar ways with unfamiliar people, in other organisations and even sectors.

Working in this way also involves thinking about ourselves and our work differently. This will be explored next week, in what will be referred to as ‘identity work’, because it is the case that approaching work as collaborative involves a shift in thinking about how we see ourselves in leadership.

This kind of work is called collaborative leadership work and over the next eight weeks you will unpack and enrich your understanding of what such work entails.

Activity 1 Who can be involved in collaborative leadership work and why?

Timing: (20 minutes)

Make a list of all the individuals, groups and organisations you think that Ellen may need to collaborate with as she takes on her new job – and why. When you do so you may find it helpful to think about people and organisations who are interested in, and have the power to influence, Ellen’s work. You can also think of people who are affected by her and her organisation’s work. This may include people and groups who have the power to influence positively or negatively; people who may or may not currently be interested in Family Time.


Starting with the basics, Ellen will first need to think about her relationship with the existing people inside the organisation who she needs to establish trust and understanding with: the volunteers, staff and trustees. She will also need to think about her relationship with the chair. After establishing some of these basics, she can start to think more expansively. The local health services and local government would be a good place to start. Political buy-in can also be very important for collaborations – so, which local councillors and/or local MPs could be called upon to lend their support? She will also need to think about ways in which she can start to appeal to more people to volunteer and donate to Family Time.

Some of these people and groups will inevitably be more enthusiastic than others. Ellen therefore needs to think about where the greatest early promise lies and to go with that. She can start to focus her attention on people with the power to enable or block the growth of the organisation.

2 Collaborative leadership

In our other short course, Introducing leadership in voluntary organisations, 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. Collaborative leadership, therefore, always works with the contradiction of needing people to give direction but also on the need for robust participation. We do not try 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 we think about and practice leadership. You will explore identity further next week.

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3 Sector challenges and the course’s responses to them

We believe that leadership practice, and specifically collaborative leadership practice, is particularly important in the voluntary sector because of the sector’s unique challenges. We draw on the following understanding of voluntary sector challenges for collaborative leadership:

Dependence, independence and interdependence

Voluntary organisations are frequently represented as dependent on public sector funding, and therefore as greatly impacted by a government’s financial settlement. Actually, only a minority of voluntary organisations are directly funded by public agencies. However, at the broader level, the work of many voluntary organisations is closely linked to the policies and activities of public sector agencies. Retaining autonomy, whilst working interdependently, is therefore a key and ongoing issue for the sector.

We will address the dependency, independence and interdependence of the sector by introducing you to a number of collaborative leadership practices. We will draw on some important ideas from informal democratic practice and participation. By democratic we do not mean every person having an equal say, and certainly not the act of voting. Rather, we mean practices that try to encourage as many diverse voices and perspectives as possible, and which involve thinking about how we talk with one another and challenge one another. Getting at what people hold to strongly is important because it can draw out hidden identifications and dimensions to problems that would otherwise go unnoticed. In other words, conflict can be constructive and productive.


The sector is increasingly concerned with its distinctiveness and independence (from the public sector and from private organisations). In this context, we understand identity as made up of an organisation’s unique history, purpose and culture. It is impossible to say that the sector has one distinctive identity. Some organisations are very rooted in local communities, others see themselves as largely expert providers of services and still others view themselves as energetic national (and international) campaigners and advocates.

If you think about it, the identity of an organisation shapes the kind of activities it chooses to pursue (or not). Identity also shapes the sorts of people who are hired and volunteer for organisations. Does this mean that identity is set in stone, never to change? Of course not. Identity is up for grabs and can shift as the people within an organisation experiment with new ideas, via interesting leadership practice.

Value, values and power

Closely related to the issue of identity is the question of the sector’s distinctive value (the difference that it makes in society), and of the values which underpin different voluntary organisations and their purposes. Our various collaborative partners will share different values. And some of these partners will necessarily enjoy more power and influence than others. It is our job in collaborative leadership not necessarily to equalise power relations (that is unrealistic) but perhaps to bring out the values of people whose voices can be muted in everyday public life. Equally, we need to think about constructive but also challenging ways of working through unequal power relations.

In her 2013 book, Voluntary Sector in Transition: Hard Times or New Possibilities?, Linda Milbourne wrote about the challenges facing the UK voluntary sector. It is not necessary to read this book in order to complete this course, but if you wish to continue with further reading beyond the contents of this course, Milbourne’s book is a good starting point.

4 Reasons to collaborate

Watch the following video, an interview with Ian Revell, Chief Executive of the MK Community Foundation, in which he sketches out some of the main features of collaborative working and ends by stating some clear benefits for collaborative working.

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Ian addressed something important for collaborative leadership practice in the video: namely, this shift to thinking of other people and organisations as partners rather than competitors. This is something that is easy to say but harder to do, as our society is, in many ways, predicated upon the notion of competition being a good thing. And it is, but only in its proper place. Ian outlined how important it was when collaborating to let go to a certain extent and to give people the space to express themselves, which clearly also means that you will have less control of the final outcome of a collaboration. Ian points out the reason this is to be welcomed at the end of the clip: collaborative leadership endeavours enable you to tackle problems in imaginative, innovative and unexpected ways. Now it is your turn to consider some of the key challenges in collaborative working.

Activity 2 Key challenges in collaborations

Timing: (45 minutes)

Now it is your turn to think about collaboration in your work place.

First, think about and note as many different examples of collaboration as you can in your own working week, or more broadly within your organisation. For each example, note whether this is an example of intra-organisational (internal to your own organisation), inter-organisational (across organisational boundaries), or cross-sector collaboration (with organisations and individuals from public or private sectors). Remember, you can rewatch Ian’s video for some inspiration to help you get started. Spend 20 minutes on this part of the task.

Think about why these collaborations exist in the first place. Do people share a common reason for being involved or are people’s interests more varied than that? If you are struggling to think of inter-organisational examples, start small. Any working relationship is basically a collaboration between two or more people. We anticipate that this part of the task will take you around 10 minutes.

Now bring your thinking to a close by summarising in your learning journal  up to five key challenges of collaborating with others. Make sure you title post the with the week number and the number of this activity, Week 1 Activity 2. Spend around 15 minutes on this part of the task.


Despite the challenges that you may have thought of in the last part of the activity, here are eight reasons that we think the need for collaborative leadership in and across voluntary organisations is so pressing and worth persevering with:

  1. Our world is becoming more interconnected than ever before. Many of the problems that communities, families and individuals face are now fuelled by cross-national, let alone cross-community, forces. Globalised trade and the overturning of how our economy is structured has led to more opportunities for many, but also left many people behind. Such issues defy previous ways of working that focused on national and regional working. Likewise, the degradation of the global environment by definition cannot be addressed by isolated organisations or governments.
  2. Money is tight. The effects of the global recession have not yet dissipated. Budget constraints mean that people need to work together in more creative ways.
  3. The small size of most voluntary organisations, especially in comparison to local authorities, can be posited as a good reason for collaboration, enabling greater reach and impact. The fragmentation of welfare service systems also suggests that organisations should collaborate more in order to achieve change.
  4. Change happens quickly. Globalisation and new technologies have transformed the way we live and work. Leadership has to keep pace and often this requires more creative and collaborative responses.
  5. Old identities seem outdated. People in our societies seem less willing to simply be a certain thing at work or in their extra-curricular lives. The idea that we should only be managers, volunteers or trustees seems outdated. While people’s responsibilities are of course important, it is also important to reflect on what is lost when we simply stick to our pre-defined identities.
  6. Old practices seem outdated. People are less accustomed to authoritarian relationships and by and large want to be more involved in the organisations and issues that matter to them. Collaborative leadership is one important way in which we can draw on more ideas and better practices.
  7. Collaborating more in leadership is socially and politically vital. While the political and economic forces facing our communities seem larger, a counter-tendency exists to withdraw simply to the private realm, to check out of the issues facing our society and the leadership of these issues. This is an unhealthy state of affairs and voluntary organisations play a crucial role between government and citizens in pulling people in, engaging them and, ultimately, transforming what we think of as important and possible.
  8. Academic knowledge and sector practices have moved on. New ideas related to leadership spring up all the time now and are more accessible thanks to the internet. We are able to share ideas related to what works and does not much more than in the past.

Practice of the week: interrogating problems

Wicked problems seem counter-intuitive in a world in which we are conditioned to think about problems as discrete and manageable. More specifically, much of our organisational training involves trying to reduce problems to such an extent that they can be managed or solved by experts. Grint (2005) refers to such work as taming work: like a new pet, the goal of taming work is to train the animal so that it can integrate into family life.

Working with wicked problems involves taking the opposite approach. It means asking yourself and others what you might be missing. It involves questioning the context of the problem at hand and seeking out ways of thinking about the broader complexity within which the problem is situated. This work can mean pushing yourself to think differently; it can mean pushing others to think differently; it also means asking ourselves different questions – questions that open up thinking and possibility, rather than shutting them down. All of the practices we encounter in this course will be focused on unfolding this approach.

Week 1 quiz

Check what you’ve learned this week by taking the end-of-week quiz.

Week 1 quiz

Open the quiz in a new window or tab then come back here when you’ve finished.

Summary of Week 1

This week you were introduced to the ethos of the course, one of active participation and developing a community of learning. A definition of leadership was further developed, to focus more on the collaborative dimensions of such work. You reflected on some of the issues that mean that collaborating more in leadership work seems vital within the context of voluntary organisations. In particular, you were introduced to the idea of the ‘wicked problem’, this idea of problems that defy simple explanations and ask for more diverse input from a range of people and groups. Finally, you were asked to reflect more on some of the possibilities and challenges you see around you for collaborative leadership work.

Now go to Week 2.

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Grint, K. (2005) ‘Problems, problems, problems: the social construction of “leadership”’, Human Relations vol. 58, no. 11, pp. 1467–94.
Milbourne, L. (2013) Voluntary sector in transition: hard times or new possibilities?, Policy Press, Bristol.
Smolović Jones, O., Grint, K. and Cammock, C. (2015) ‘Public leadership development facilitation and the crossroads blues’, Management Learning, vol. 46 no. 4, pp. 391–411.


This free course was written by Owain Smolović Jones and Carol Jacklin-Jarvis.

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