"collective functioning requires a step change in leadership from those at the top of businesses in the nuanced post-pandemic world"

Let’s get together… and lead

Over the years we have talked to a lot of leaders about their leadership styles.  What we often hear is that a team, with a clear set of objectives,  led by a leader who sets ‘the tone from the top’ and displays strong directive qualities is the archetypically ideal model of group effectiveness.  But what if the leadership from the top model is – if not faulty – then perhaps not the only or best way at looking at team effectiveness?

The term ‘collective functioning’ is gaining currency in today’s discussions about teamwork and how modern businesses function.  The cult of the individual, frequently the CEO, is being subsumed by the notion of harnessing the talents and emotions of the top team working together and thereby unleashing hidden potential and performance.  Now admittedly, this is not wholly novel thinking.  Richard Hackman, working at Harvard in the 1980’s recognised that successful teams are not just about building a group around the talents of its top player; Hackman concluded that teams that share resources, and have flexibility and opportunities for collective learning, are far more likely to prosper than those with a more narrow brief.

But collective functioning requires a step change in leadership from those at the top of businesses in the nuanced  post-pandemic world.  Specifically it requires

  • Leaders who are prepared to ‘lead from the back’; that is, nurturing and nudging a team around a collective set of goals, to constantly improve
  • Leaders who can coach and mentor those around them. And not as an add-on to the job but as a core and central part of the role
  • Leaders who are prepared to understand that they might not know best all the time and to voice that opinion with a degree of confidence and self-assuredness
  • Leaders who ask good questions and really listen to the answers… and then act upon those answers
  • Leaders who build and protect a culture of psychological safety where colleagues do not just feel it is safe to speak up but who see it as their responsibility to speak up

At Rosewell House we work with senior leadership teams across a variety of sectors.  We are privileged to get to see these teams in action and how different teams and leaders adapt to the changing business environment.  While it is self-evident that the models of leadership that have prevailed in fast-moving, high-growth and stable economic environments might not always work as well in post-pandemic, dispersed and low growth markets, it is equally clear that the models of collective leadership have yet to be adopted widely.  Our belief is that this is for a very simple reason – that behavioural change of this sort is just very difficult at the human level.

The hierarchical structure of most businesses places a huge onus on the person at the top.  That pressure all too frequently translates into a gung-ho, follow me mode of leadership that reinforces the notion that ‘the star player’ knows best.  To stop, pause and allow others to think that the star player might actually be just one of a collective which with diverse thinking, empathy and real listening might come up with better strategies, wiser ideas and more effective implementation requires real bravery.  Or rather, real leadership.

Steve Lee
Rosewell House LLP

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