The Future of Work: the Art of Collaborative Leadership

The future of work as we know it is shifting from an outdated directive approach toward collaborative frameworks that inspire us to engage in new and different ways with our work and with each other.
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People playing with tangled string
People playing with tangled string

The way we work is shifting. We see that in subtle ways and other times in not so subtle ways. Even traditional companies like Deloitte are investing in people development, realizing that it is the best resource they have to stay ahead of the curve. Those with a real competitive advantage intuitively understand innovation and creativity as essential to meeting market demands and crucial in facing our collective sustainability challenges. The future of work as we know it is shifting from an outdated directive approach toward collaborative frameworks that inspire us to engage in new and different ways with our work and with each other.

This elusive concept has always intrigued and intimidated me, so I began to question my own assumptions I held about collaboration. One of my current projects has given me an opportunity to explore and experience my own leadership in a collaborative environment. For the last six months, I have been co-designing and co-hosting the Women & Power Leadership Forum, using collaborative processes based on Art of Hosting principles. Together with Kathy Jourdain (an experienced steward in the work of Art of Hosting), whom I thank from the bottom of my heart for embodying collaborative leadership so beautifully and supporting my discovery of this, as well as a wonderful hosting team, this experience has provided rich learning for all of us in exploring what it means to be collaborative and uncovering the traits required to cultivate it.

Decision by Consensus?

One of the big beliefs I made up about collaborative work was that one most come to decisions by consensus; if there were any outliers, you could not forge ahead. This seemed an exhaustive and almost impossible task when you think about how hard it is to get a group of people to agree on anything. Just look at what happened with the Occupy Movement -- decision by consensus just doesn't work especially when you're talking about scalability. To my relief, I discovered making the final decision wasn't as crucial as was the process in making the decision. Team members must have a chance to voice their opinion through open and honest dialogue, and everyone must have an opportunity to explore the issue together. This process is integral to collaborative decision making (even though that term seems like an oxymoron!). Once you've gone through this exercise, themes and patterns emerge, and through collective sensing, a solution or decision emerges. Not surprisingly, the solution or idea is often better than what one person could have come up with just by themselves.

Leaning In vs. Leaning Out

Another assumption I held was that a strong vision was enough to inspire collaboration. Turns out, it's not enough. As leaders, we assume that leading means doing it all. For many of us, fear of failing and embarrassment have us hanging on to control. We take on more than we should, we step on toes and we micro-manage without meaning to. Not surprisingly, the signal this sends is that "she's got it covered." Women tend to do this to a fault -- we take on more than we can chew because we are good multi-taskers and want to prove our value, so we take it all on and in doing so, prevent others from stepping in. This is where the now proverbial "leaning in" approach is NOT effective. By "leaning out" as leaders, we give our people a chance to lean in. This creates an opportunity for them to take responsibility for the tasks at hand, to step in and contribute more fully and engages them in a way where their best ideas and input are brought forth. For perfectionists and control freaks like me, this can be one of the biggest challenges to overcome. Learning to let go and trust others is crucial to create the space for brilliance to shine. Finding the balance is where this practice becomes an art form.

Vulnerability as Strength

The single most significant piece of learning for me has been around understanding how vulnerability is the key to success in any collaborative process. We've got it all wrong in our work ethos. We believe vulnerability is a weakness. We are afraid to admit we don't have the answer for fear of being seen as incompetent. Our need to prove our worth and value and the fear of shame all leads to creating separation. What I have found over and over again in my leadership journey is that when I am wiling to be vulnerable, share my true feelings no matter how embarrassing or weak I may be perceived, when I am able to truly listen to feedback and be willing to receive it without taking it personally, these acts are powerful beyond measure. This is a secret superpower that everyone possesses, but not everyone has the courage to enact. It takes a willingness to fail and learn from your mistakes, to risk the shame that comes along with it. But the rewards are bountiful. It's the quickest route to creating trust in any relationship or group process. It creates an environment where others feel able to open up and share their feelings, stimulating input, ideas and solutions. It allows us to be human, and realize that we are all in this together. It opens up our hearts and reminds us that it's not about the bottom line, or even the next big idea. It's about being in relationship; the learning and experiences that show us who we truly are.


I would not have had the chance to be in this learning process if it weren't for some pretty spectacular women. I'm humbled by the experience of working in collaboration with women who have volunteered their time and energy for an idea I am deeply passionate about. As challenging as it is at times for me, they always hold me up to my highest potential, give me honest feedback, defend me and believe in me. Sometimes the best learning comes when others are courageous enough to voice their truth. I'm grateful for the opportunity to work with women who have the capacity to do that in a supportive way. Learning to give credit and acknowledging your partners and team mates goes without saying, yet how many times do we just breeze over that? Being humble, setting your ego aside and letting go of the need to shine are unique aspects of collaborative leadership which are hard to learn, and hard to teach. For many of us, this is counter-intuitive to the competitive nature of business. But it's an integral part of how we operate as human beings and it's the key to collective success.

The Outcome

The proof is in the pudding they say. You might be wondering how this collaborative process worked out in the end. We're still in the middle of it, yet what I can report is that we are successfully co-creating a first-time event which is almost nearly sold out (we still have a month to go), there is a buzz about it in Silicon Valley and support from far and wide. As hosts, we will continue to practice these processes on the day of our event, as we co-host a day of deep dialogue for the multi-generational women leaders who will participate that day. We aren't attached to any outcomes. What we do know, however, is that our attendees will walk away having experienced collaborative process and leadership. And that alone will be a work of art.

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