Great Leaders Don't Have Followers: They Collaborate

Mature businesswoman leading discussion during team meeting with coworkers in office
Mature businesswoman leading discussion during team meeting with coworkers in office

I was asked recently about my leadership style and what makes a great leader. As Peter Drucker said years ago, stable times require excellence and good management. As we transition to a new age, our organizations need more; they need leadership. So managers shouldn't just manage. Today they need to lead and think of themselves primarily as leaders rather than just managers.
In the past, tinkering could do the trick. These times require deep innovation and transformation, though, and that means leadership. However, leadership is changing too.

The type of leadership I embrace mirrors the digital revolution I've spent my life studying. The old model of technology was based on the mainframe; all intelligence was in the host computer, and mainframes communicated with peripherals down the hierarchical network.

Similarly, the old model of leadership was focused in a single, powerful individual. Great leaders were often those with the biggest brain or brain/mouth combination. They created a vision and sold it down to others.

Command-and-control leadership worked well with command-and-control computing and command-and-control business. That's not how technology is modeled anymore, and increasingly not how business is done. Why should we keep the old ideas about leadership?

My approach to leadership is collaborative. This approach is the antithesis of the old-style, brilliant visionary, take-charge, rally-the-troops type. In the past, Winston Churchill, Thomas Watson, and Lee Iacocca embodied the single dominant leader. Today, the leader is a collective, networked, virtual force and no longer necessarily embodied in a single individual.
These three beliefs inform my approach to leadership in a connected world:

1. Collaborative Leadership Means Leading for Learning

Increasingly, the only sustainable competitive advantage has become an organization's ability to overcome what management author Peter Senge calls its "organizational learning disabilities," and to grow and change with the times.

The days when a great leader at the top could learn for the entire organization are gone. As Senge points out, "in an increasingly dynamic, interdependent and unpredictable world, it is simply no longer possible for anyone to 'figure it all out at the top.'" For Senge, "leaders are designers, stewards, and teachers. They are responsible for building organizations where people continually expand their capacities to understand complexity, clarify vision, and improve shared mental models -- that is, they are responsible for learning."

Still, too many CEOs see communication as a one-way street where, as one military leader put it, "We have a responsibility to communicate vision to our subordinates and they have a responsibility to be open and receive our communication." Today, that kind of approach is nonsense on stilts. You can't have a "sell down" vision. You need a shared vision.

2. Collaborative Leadership is Collective Leadership

Collective leadership is born in teams through collective action of individuals working to forge a new vision or solve problems. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Leadership is not simply achieved through one individual but through the collective action of many. At Xerox, one base team for achieving transformative leadership is "the dyad" -- a pairing of individuals who work together. This extends to "communities of practice," where the synergy of diverse individuals combines for cultural change and breakthrough thinking.

At the Martin Prosperity Institute, I lead with other Fellows like Roger Martin and Richard Florida on shared and overlapping endeavours designed by the Institute to maximize our various talents while putting us in a position to learn from one another. We direct the outcomes of our projects as part of a team.

The intellectual power generated through networking minds for collective vision will far surpass the intellectual prowess of even the smartest, loudest boss. Equally important, strategies developed collectively have an infinitely higher probability of actually being implemented. Collective thinking leads to collective action.

3. Collaborative Leadership Is Your Personal Opportunity

I asked a group of 400 managers this question: "Excluding yourself, where is the leadership for transformation currently coming from in your organization? Please rank the top three." The results demonstrated that leadership came from many different sources within companies -- senior management, secretaries, interns, in-house professionals -- you name it.

Audrey Howe started out in a clerical role at Citibank and became the critical person in the transformation of its corporate real estate division. She had what it took to be a leader -- she willed change. Leadership is percolating up through companies and coming from a multiplicity of sources.

One conclusion that can be drawn from this trend is that leadership for transformation is your opportunity, not just an opportunity for your CEO, or your boss, but your opportunity. Each of us has a choice to participate actively in transformation, to observe passively, or to resist. If you act, you can shape your future, even if you're not a member of the senior management group.

At root, it's a question of taking control of your destiny for a new age. No less a philosopher than rock singer Meatloaf has advice on why we need to take charge of our lives: "There is only one thing that will take away everything you've ever wanted -- fear." Mahatma Gandhi was even more specific when he said, "We must be the change we wish to see in the world."

To generate powerful collective action, embrace collaborative leadership by understanding that it involves growing and learning along with others, your opinion will never be the only one that matters, and it's your personal opportunity.

Don Tapscott is a Fellow at the Martin Prosperity Institute, which is working to rethink democratic capitalism.

He is also Chancellor of Trent University and the author of 15 books, most recently The Digital Economy. Follow him on Twitter @dtapscott.