Strategies for collaborative leadership | Article

Collaborative leadership brings better outcomes by creating an organisational culture that empowers, inspires and fulfils team members.  

Cathy Butler, WIG's Head of Leadership, outlines the benefits of collaborative leadership, the behaviours of a collaborative leader, and why trust is the essential ingredient for collaboration.  

Key Takeaways: 

  • Collaborative leadership enables results that cannot be achieved alone 
  • The collaborative experience creates an inspirational organisational culture that is enjoyable and fulfilling 
  • Collaborative leadership is a discipline that takes intentional effort and practice 
  • Collaborative leaders are non-judgmental, enable inclusivity, and quiet egos 
  • Successful collaboration comes down to trust, both of yourself and those you work with 

The collaborative leader can unleash, inspire, and engage hidden and untapped potential in our most important organisational asset, our human capital.  On the hard benefit side, collaboration enables us to achieve results we could not achieve alone. On the soft benefit side, the collaborative experience will add to an inspirational culture that leaders and colleagues will enjoy and find fulfilling.  

The complexity of the problems faced by society and leaders requires us to work collaboratively across conventional boundaries, sectors and disciplines to achieve and activate our visions and goals for a better world. 

Behaviours of collaborative leaders 

Leaders can improve their ability to collaborate by identifying, developing and practising important behaviours of collaborative leadership such as the following:  

Using a coaching approach 

Those who are best at collaborative leadership adopt a coaching style in their leadership.  They use creative techniques and ask powerful questions to encourage their people to think differently, be innovative and come to their own decisions about problems and leadership issues.  This is the very antithesis of command and control, the predominant leadership style of the 20th century.  

Their more enabling coaching approach is non-judgemental and characterised by “unconditional positive regard and empathy” (Carl Rogers, 1957). This technique involves constantly employing deep listening skills.  

Enabling inclusivity 

Collaborative leadership involves many of the enablers of inclusivity, such as connection (characterised by openness, respect, and trust) and getting people behind a common cause. This is achieved by inspiring people behind a shared purpose and adopting a shared power approach.  Using these techniques will also have the added benefit of being hyper-inclusive and embracing diversity. 

Quietening egos 

Finally, a critical prerequisite for collaborative leadership is the ability to get your ego out of the way (McDermott and Hall, 2016).  This not only involves quietening our own egos but also the egos of others involved in the collaborative endeavour.   


Trust: the essential ingredient 

Unsurprisingly, it is the “T” word (Trust) that is often quoted as the essential ingredient of successful collaboration. Anything that damages trust is likely to cause a collaboration to fail.  Ultimately, successful collaboration comes down to trust and trusting those you work with.  

To develop as a collaborative leader, we need to be able to simultaneously focus on self and others at the same time. We need to have self-trust so that we know who we are, what we are about and how to manage ourselves, and we need to believe and trust in others and be able to delegate to others.  

I am always struck by a story of a study quoted by my friend and former colleague Professor Mark de Rond (Professor of Organisational Ethnography at University of Cambridge) in his work and book on high performing teams.   

When 1,800 senior managers were asked the question “How confident are you in your own ability to make good choices?”, 83% responded “confident” or “very confident”.  When the same group was asked, “How confident are you in the ability of those you work with most closely also to make good choices?”, only 27% were either “confident” or “very confident” of the ability of their colleagues to also make good choices.  

Our tendency to overestimate our own abilities may be worrying, but even more worrying is our tendency to underestimate the abilities of others.   As Forbes noted in 2006, trust is at the bedrock of collaboration and without trust, “collaboration is merely cooperation”.   

Developing collaborative leadership

Collaborative leadership is a discipline that takes intentional effort and practice; it is best developed through immersive, experience-based development programmes that cultivate a collaborative mindset through sharing, peer learning, and reflecting on leadership experiences, such as WIG’s new Advanced Collaborative Leadership Programme for mid to senior leaders that will take place from September 2023 to March 2024. 

Leaders should practice, apply and repeat collaborative behaviours, qualities and approaches in the workplace until they fully embody collaboration authentically as their leadership style of choice. 

Let’s continue to constantly seek to embrace multiple realities, to strive to develop ourselves as collaborative leaders, to trust and be trustworthy, and to open our minds to others’ perspectives in our life’s work in enabling cross-sector collaboration to make an impact on our future and on our planet.


New for 2024: WIG will launch an Advanced Collaborative Leadership Programme developed for mid to senior-level leaders who want to deepen their leadership and organisational capabilities to achieve greater outcomes through collaboration.

Written by

Cathy is Head of Leadership at The Whitehall & Industry Group, designing and delivering collaborative cross sector leadership programmes for all stages of the leadership life-cycle. She is a leadership and talent specialist and highly regarded coach, programme, and client director.  With over 25 years’ global programme and project experience, Cathy works with executives, their teams and organisations to navigate ambiguity, thrive on innovation and collaboration to achieve fulfilment and impact for their organisations and society as a whole.  

Cathy spent over 16 years working in different global leadership development roles at the University of Cambridge, at the Business School and the Møller Institute, Churchill College. Before that she worked in a variety of business development roles in organisations spanning the private, not-for-profit and public sectors.

Cathy holds an MA, an MBA and has completed an Advanced Diploma in Transformational Coaching for EMCC accreditation.  She is a trained teacher and is also certified to deliver several leadership psychometric tools.

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