Why is collaborative leadership replacing top-down leadership?

Four fists all coming together in unison from four different people

In our complex world that is very interconnected leadership is increasingly moving from a top-down to a more collaborative approach overcoming conflicts and disputes more readily and earlier while improving productivity, morale, and customer satisfaction. This type of leadership tends to be encouraging, listening, and understanding. Leadership tends to be empathetic, focus on buy in, and being authentic. Collective leadership results in less rework, misunderstandings, and frustration as employees are aligned with their leadership. Because leadership is allowed to shift according to who has the expertise as various needs arise, everyone knows that depending on what is needed anyone may be called upon to share what they know, and everyone is encouraged to speak up.


Collective or collaborative leadership


Collective or collaborative leadership may take several forms, but essentially a group of people with various skill sets work together towards a common goal. This can also be across various silos within or across organizations. When needed the group engages in consensus building or various forms of alternative dispute resolution to resolve and to reach a decision. On occasion the group may point to a participant to take the lead on a given task given the experiences and skill set of an individual to the project need.

This type of leadership may be both formal and informal. With an emphasis on trust and collaboration participants share power, learning, and accountability.

However, too much trust can actually undermine collaboration. It is important that others bring up what needs to said, but at the same time there are skills associated with disagreeing well. Collective leadership is founded on a premise that anyone may be called upon to lead at some point. The concept stems from a perspective that no one person knows it all. With the collective leadership the team will be more productive, with higher quality, and better results.


Why collaborative leadership?


This type of leadership requires commitment and buy-in by participants. That includes traditional leadership to allow collective leadership and collaboration to flourish. With this approach the organization avoids key person disruptions when one person leaves. People are held accountable by their peers not requiring constant supervision. Mentors, coaches, and supervisors are still required. They perform in a way that is needed based on the situation.

This empowers employees to take on responsibility and increases employee satisfaction.

This type of leadership encourages diversity, equity, and inclusion. The organizations that participate with collective and collaborative leadership  reach out before beginning the hiring process and when they begin considering recruiting. They apply what they have learned  when recruiting, hiring, bringing on board, coaching for success and assigning mentors. Real consideration is given to the individual and their individual needs. Typically, three mentor types are identified to assist with technical advice, a vision of where the organization is going, and someone who is an expert on how to really accomplish tasks in the organization.

Think of the three mentors to help employees  as the technical, visionary, and practical mentors.

One person may wear more than one hat. Collaborative leadership looks for ways to set new hires and existing employees up for success. More people of color, women, persons with disabilities, and others that may have been marginalized are often attracted to this type of organization where they feel truly valued. The diverse experiences of others foster a more creative environment.


The role of historical leader


The historical leader is still needed, but the attributes needed have changed. The historical leader looks for ways to help, integrate, structure resources and people, and provide insights given a bigger picture of the tasks at hand.

The historical leaders need to move between people and groups in order to listen, encourage, and offer ideas to team members.

This is more fluid in application. It requires management by wondering around whether in an in person physical environment or a virtual environment.


Listening to customer needs


Listening to customers, bringing on board team members with expertise, and appropriate members related to research, finance, pre-production, production, distribution, or whatever skills are needed helps break down silos and produces better results. Ultimately those most impacted have to buy into the process to make it work.

In this article from Iowa State University on prairie strips the ultimate decision makers were the farmers having been collaborating with researchers, scientists, extension agents, and others to determine the best design for a given farm.

Today this approach has grown into the largest private land conservation program in the U.S. It took the recognition of the farmers to be accepted as professionals and experts on their own farms that made it work. Annual feedback on objective measured data and subjective observations and ideas from participants allowed this process to thrive.




Taking the theory to practical application takes a vision, training, education, testing, listening, and dedication to succeed. For those that take the time and energy to give this approach true consideration it is possible to reap much better results. What about in a service industry with clients, customers in various other industries, government, and not for profits? Clearly there is a need for top down leadership with command and control in various instances, but our society is at the same time realizing the benefits of a collaborative approach.

To recruit, hire, and retain the best consider what type of leadership you need now and into the future for your organization.

Having assisted with strategic planning with various organizations it has been this author’s perspective that collective / collaborative leaderships is an ever growing movement. To learn more check out this article from the Harvard Program on Negotiation offered by the Harvard Law School that inspired me to offer you this commentary. Having read this blog  what do you think? Please share this with me. I would love to hear your ideas too.

About the author

Mike Gregory is a professional speaker, an author, and a mediator. You may contact Mike directly at mg@mikegreg.com and at (651) 633-5311. Mike has written 12 books (and co-authored two others) including his latest book, The Collaboration Effect: Overcoming Your Conflicts, and The Servant Manager, Business Valuations and the IRS, and Peaceful Resolutions that you may find helpful. [Michael Gregory, ASA, CVA, MBA, Qualified Mediator with the Minnesota Supreme Court]