Can you prepare young people for such leadership?
Can you teach this type of collaborative leadership? The answer is similar to that related to many other skills and capabilities that require some innate talent. You cannot transform a person with no talent into a successful collaborative leader, but you can take a rough diamond and polish it. You can hone the skills of those who have some aptitude for it.
Adult learning in a professional environment is always a combination of five major areas of activity: on-the-job training, mentoring, special projects, job rotation and formal education. The formal education is a very important element, because it helps to make sense of all the other activities.
Preparing a young person with high potential for a role as a collaborative leader also requires a combination of these five aspects. Formal education at a business school is a tremendous opportunity to help people to expand on the experiences they have had in collaborative leadership, conceptualizing these experiences, and giving them the confidence that these concepts are not idiosyncratic but can in fact be generalized and applied in many different circumstances. Business schools can and do play a very important role in speeding up this process of adult learning.
At the Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge we have been experimenting with collaborative leadership for almost a decade. It is probably partially in our genetic heritage as a collegiate university. The University of Cambridge consists of more than forty independent institutions that have to work together in the Cambridge ecosystem. A collegiate university is probably an age-old experiment in collaboration and collaborative leadership, because nobody has really strong power: we are only effective by working together and sharing strong values. Similarly, the ecosystem of small and mediumsized entrepreneurial high-tech companies clustered around the University of Cambridge seems to operate within a similar collaborative approach. One of the successful companies in Cambridge, ARM, a producer of reduced instruction set computing (RISC) processors for the mobile phone industry, is also an extreme example of working within networks (Williamson and De Meyer, 2009).
But even so, educating for collaborative leadership is still a new area for us and I do not pretend that we have here in Cambridge all the techniques to do this successfully. To stimulate a debate on how we can help to groom collaborative leaders for the coming decade I would like to make five propositions.
Leadership development is essentially experiential: adult learning is often about making sense of an individual’s own experience gained through projects, on-the-job learning and so on. We need to provide our students with the opportunity to become masters of their own leadership destiny. Therefore our programs need to include a significant element of experiential learning. We do this, like many other business schools, through a great deal of group work, and classroom interactions with leaders. But we have also found it most helpful to include in the program two major group consulting projects: one with a small local organization (often high-tech entrepreneurial companies); and one with a globally operating large organization. These projects provide a relatively low- risk environment in which to experiment with collaborative leadership.
Learning about collaborative leadership requires dialogue. Rather than sticking to a single pedagogical method at the Cambridge Judge Business School, we believe in mixing lectures with cases discussions, interactions with leaders, group work and so on, and above all, that interaction between all involved in the learning process is at the heart of adult learning. I do believe that, ultimately, we learn when we can formulate our own insights. Dialogue is probably at the heart of what collaboration is all about.
Collaborative leadership development requires interdisciplinary interactions, beyond the boundaries of a business, and of business in general. It requires strong interactions and learning from scientists, social leaders, politicians, philosophers and so on, to create openness in one’s thinking and an ability to listen to information coming from unexpected areas. In a sense, we are blessed by being a business school operating at the heart of the University of Cambridge, and one that has resolutely chosen to be integrated with the other departments. Beyond the opportunity for interdisciplinary research opportunities that this creates, it is also a way of bringing a wide range of colleagues from other departments into the learning activities.
Collaborative leadership requires our students to learn how to manage the difficult triangle of simultaneously listening, influencing and keeping an action orientation. Collaborative leadership requires all three, and it is all too easy to fall into the trap of overemphasizing only one or two of them. Listening alone may be good for a coach or a counsellor. Influencing alone is good for a teacher or a consultant. And action alone is perhaps good for a crisis manager. But true collaborative leadership requires a careful balance between all three. The balance is also important because it is the best way to exercise the restraint I mentioned earlier. Collaborative leadership has its dark side, and striking the right balance between listening, influencing and action is perhaps the best way of exercising restraint.
Leadership is about managing constant change. Collaborative leadership requires that such change is managed through others. But constant change is tiring, and the collaborative leader needs to find the energy to keep on driving through the change, as well as developing the energy for his or her peers to do the same. I find this at once the most challenging and the easiest task in helping students to learn about collaborative leadership. We need to inspire our students to find and create energy for themselves and for others. It is difficult because energy is not that easy to create, but it becomes easy when we can make students see that there is energy in working with others and in doing things you like to do.
It may appear from the description of my five propositions that I consider this type of leadership development to a large extent experiential. This is partially true, but a lot of what we do is anchored in concepts we studied in our research, and translated into theory and practical concepts. Formal knowledge-sharing and capability development are part of each of these five areas (de Rond, 2008).
Finally, we need to accept that leaders in a risky, networked world cannot predict and control everything, and that a measure of luck is needed. Tongue in cheek, I would like to argue that we need to believe in the logic of luck. Successful action is not only about cold analysis and structured decision-making. Onceyou are luckyyou have to be able to spot it and exploit it quickly. That is another trick we think our students can learn.