It’s OK not to be Collaborative

When working with leaders I often measure desired leadership behaviours. I do this at both the beginning and end of a program to assess what progress has been made. It is common for participants to express the desire to be a “Collaborative Leader”. It also happens that after feedback is obtained participants often express disappointment that they didn’t score higher on the Collaborative measure.

My response is that leaders cannot always be collaborative so it’s OK to get a less than perfect score on that measure. There is no “one best way” when it comes to leadership. The question of what’s a good leadership style can only be answered by, “it depends on the situation”.

What is the best leadership style for a General depends on whether the army is at war or at peace. The best leadership style for a CEO may depend on whether the company is in its growth phase or in a profit crisis because of a declining market. And the leadership style that encourages the communication and collaboration necessary to creating successful strategy, innovation and growth may not be helpful when dealing with a building fire.

What is clear is that being a collaborative leader will be advantageous in most situations, for it will foster communication, idea generation and a positive, inclusive, culture. But a leader cannot always be collaborative.

At the organizational level, we expect leaders to provide direction, exercise authority, represent the organization, and sponsor future leaders, all things that rely on individual skills and judgement rather than consensus decision making. In fact, leaders who allow the search for consensus to override the need to make hard and timely decisions are derelict in their duties. Collaboration overplayed can result in never ending meetings that fail to deliver. It can become “not the oil greasing the wheel but the sand grinding to a halt” (to quote Ibarra and Hansen).

Pushing different parts of an organisation to be more collaborative isn’t always beneficial. Martin T Hansen says that there are many situations where internal collaboration creates real organisational value – for example, cross-selling, best practice transfer, cross-unit product innovation – but there are also situations where collaboration can end up costing time and money. You need to consider each collaborative project on its merits and assess if the project yields a real benefit – a “collaboration premium”.

Hansen concludes that to collaborate well is to know when not to do it.

Have a great week.

Mark Rosenberg

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