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Why We Need Collaborative Not Competitive Leaders

Economic, social and environmental crises require collaborative leaders

For decades, leaders have been told that success depends on experience, expertise, efforts and power. The age of mass collaboration is challenging these ideas and the very nature of leadership, and at the same time offering unprecedented opportunities for leaders.

We need only look to the failure of current political systems, and parts of our economic system to see that the model of non-collaboration has gotten us into deep trouble.

To begin with, the movement toward a collaborative economy is significant, perhaps forced out of necessity.

In their book, What’s Mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption, authors Rachel Botsman, a partner at Collaborative Fund and a former senior director of the William J. Clinton Foundation, and Roo Rogers, cofounding partner of OZOlab contend that a collaborative consumption model is developing—systems of organized sharing, bartering, lending, trading, renting, gifting and swapping. They argue that “collaborative consumption gives people the benefits of ownership with reduced personal burden and cost and also lower environmental impact—and it’s proving to be a compelling alternative to traditional forms of buying and ownership.”

Their concept and argument is structured around three types of systems: Product service systems which enable companies to offer goods as a service rather than sell them as products, and can be shared or rented peer-to-peer; redistribution markets, which are used or pre-owned goods moved from one location where they’re not needed to another where they are needed. These goods could be free or swapped or sold for cash, and because they are redistributed, they become part of a sustainability economy; and collaborative lifestyles, where people with similar needs or interests band together to share and exchange less-tangible assets such as time, space, skills and money. The exchanges happen mostly on a local or neighborhood level, as people share working spaces (e.g.: Citizen Space or Hub Culture), urban gardens (eg: SharedEarth or Landshare), parking spots (eg: ParkatmyHouse). This includes other exchanges such as peer-to-peer lending  (Zopa and Lending Club) and peer-to-peer travel (Airbnb and Roomorama).

Any interesting theme in the collaborative consumption argument is that of reputation capital. Colin Brown, writing in CNBC Business argues today brand equity can be destroyed or severely damaged overnight, citing the examples of BP, Toyota, News Corp and Tiger Woods. “Many see measurement of reputation—trust quotients, if you like—as the next big frontier on the web.” A new breed of reputation brokers is starting to define web 3.0 with the equivalent of “PeopleRank” scores, a kind of Yelp rating for people and companies based on reputation scores. Brown cites the example of Damian Kimmelman, an ex-Wall Street risk assessment analyst who has established a London-based company Duedil, a free service that offers inside information on every company in the U.K. and Ireland and their directors based on all public records and 900 news websites, providing a reputation ranking.

As collaboration becomes more critical in our shaky economic, social and environmental world, having leaders who have a collaborative style of leading, becomes imperative.

In his book, Leadershift, author Emmanual Gobillot, a consultant and speaker with a wide audience in Europe, describes how to adapt traditional leadership roles and a develop a new business model for success. Leadershift explores the world of mass collaboration--that is, the collective actions of large numbers of people working independently of organizations and institutions. Gobillot argues that social, collaborative and virtual networking have far deeper implications than just changing the way we work or do business. Mass participation makes business a social enterprise, and therefore changing the nature of roles within.

 Gobillot argues that leadership during a mass participation era is linked to narrative (story telling) and contribution more than it is to power and prescribed roles. The real challenge with collaboration is that it needs to be implemented with tools that do not currently facilitate it. Engaging in conversations with people that help paint desired pictures of the future, or apply our knowledge of human behavior from brain science research is at odds with the kinds of structures and processes that currently exist in organizations.

Today, four critical trends are making the old business model and leadership style irrelevant: the demographic trend, the expertise trend, the attention trend and the democratic trend. These trends together are turning the world of work upside down. Gobillot outlines the four trends that will change the current paradigm:

  • The demographic trend, which will make individual experience less important than collective experience. For the first time in history, multiple generations with multiple socio-cultural backgrounds are working together in the workplace, each with their own hopes, fears, expectations and experiences, which others may not understand or relate to;
  • The expertise trend, which will make individual technical knowledge less important than collective knowledge. The expertise that drives successful organizations will reside in a network of relationships outside managerial control.
  • The attention trend, which will make individual efforts irrelevant, and be replaced by collective social and knowledge networks that replace organizations as a source of coherence and cohesion for all stakeholders.
  • The democratic trend, which will make individual power irrelevant compared to the power of consultants, part-time workers, and networks of collaborative associates, outside of the leader's span of control.

 These four trends will alter the kind of leadership needed in organizations and society. The most significant impact will be on the leader's use of power. If control of collective behavior lies outside of the span of a leaders' reach, then traditional leader behavior that focuses on command and control becomes irrelevant, to be replaced by a non-hierarchical structure. It also focuses on the importance of cultural facilitation over strategic initiatives.

In the final analysis the collective community will validate whether the leader was effective, not the leader himself. It becomes a shift from organizational position power to communal social power.


Ray Williams is the author of Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge.

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