Collaboration – Wither Leadership?

By Guy Higgins

Last week, I waxed eloquent (personal opinion) about collaboration. One major point I raised and emphasized at the end of the post was the importance of not allocating credit to individuals – and how darned contrary that is to our nature. We want to know “who” on the team, not just “the team.”

What does that mean for leaders and leadership? Do leaders get allocated to the scrap heap of history? Of course not – they’re the ones who get to do all the #%*&% hard stuff. What is that hard stuff? Let’s take a look.

Last week, I posted about collaborating and implied that successful collaboration required:

  • Leveraging cognitive diversity
  • A willingness to change your mind (abandon “sunk costs”)
  • Rejecting the idea of allocating credit to a “primary team member”

These are the things that the leader has to accomplish to enable her teams to achieve fruitful collaborative efforts.

Leveraging cognitive diversity – Cognitive diversity requires enormous leadership effort. Leveraging it requires leaders who ensure that they and their teams understand cognitive diversity and how to use it. Leaders must then ensure that they have processes in place and understood that support leveraging cognitive diversity—and they, the leaders, must control the process, but not the content.

A willingness to change your mind – Leaders must accept and even encourage such willingness. Too often humans have a tendency to view mind changes as a character flaw (he’s always “flip-flopping.”) rather than as the result of an open mind and an insightful intelligence. Leaders can only do this through example – no amount of pontificating can overcome or replace the example of the leader changing his mind when confronted with new or better information.

Rejecting individual credit – Again by example, leaders have to allocate credit to the collaborators (as a whole) and not succumb to the temptation to give credit to one or two people. This means really internalizing the idea that the team – not any one person – achieved the result. Unfortunately, personnel evaluation systems don’t support team credit. Leaders will need to stand firm against demands for “who” did it when it was “the team.” Seeing that it’s NFL playoff season, it seems that players and coaches have accepted the idea – the most common answer to the reporters’ questions about “who” is “we played really well and the guys came together” or some equivalent. Someone might ask, “What about the MVP?” That’s a good question, but if we look hard at this, we realize that the MVP is awarded not by the coach, but by outsiders – this is the player “we” (the outsiders) think contributed the most. The coaches are still thinking “team.”

Maybe the idea of an organizational leader as the coach of an athletic team is a good one. The coach controls the process (the game plan) but not the content (the actual execution of the plays). He makes sure that everyone understands how to play his position (leveraging cognitive diversity) and ensures that everyone knows that it’s the team that wins or loses. Credit gets allocated based on how well each player plays his position and role, but secondarily to whether or not the team wins.


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