Understanding Collaborative Leadership & Team Leadership
How to become a collaborative leader and team leader who can motivate team members to deliver—and guide people to collaborate effectively
Before engaging others to execute ideas and innovations, the transformational leader ensures they themselves are grounded, connected, and feeling their purpose (especially in intense VUCA environments). Once feeling awake, conscious, and settled, we are now ready to focus our team/ partners/ peers/ colleagues/ collaborators on experimenting, evolving, and executing our innovations and transformations.
This is team leadership and collaborative leadership: crucial in the quotidian moments that, taken together, scaffold up to determine the success or failure of every project. It is the 4th of our 6 spirals that make up transformational leadership.
We will need to help our colleagues break through their own protective patterns and well-conditioned habits; unravel conflicts and misalignments that are stopping creative flow on executing transformational solutions; and adapt team structures, processes, and workflows to support our people both to get stuff done without lots of treacle getting in the way and ensure that creativity, emergence, and adaptation can occur so that the project is a fit for the future when complete.
Once we have developed a transformational solution or innovation to a challenge, the requirement for technical expertise usually becomes clear. Gone are the days when we need to be the smartest gal or guy in the team. Today we need to be wiser, not smarter, than our team members. Our employees should be the technical experts needed to execute (whether in AI, blockchain, or carbon-sequestering). Our job is to have the wisdom needed to know who should be on a team, how to motivate and incentivize them, and how to ensure each individual helps the team to pull together toward a common goal.
As we deepen insight into our own embodied wisdom, we develop better emotional and cognitive empathy for others in our teams so we can also support them to transform the protective patterns that are holding them up from delivering transformational outcomes. This is serious, significant, and important ‘emotional labor’. It must be treated as such.
We are often going to have to help team members and collaborators adapt their thinking (head) and change their habits (hands). This, as we know, also means helping them change their emotions (heart) and felt senses (hara). Mastery of how we help them, empower them, direct them, and sanction them is key. We are going to have to have many difficult conversations and give tough feedback. As emotions drive thought and action, remember to connect with your colleagues with cognitive and emotional empathy (and kids/partners/friends!) before you correct their behavior with feedback.
If team members enter a blame, shame, and complain cycle, they lose the capacity to be coached and guided. They will be in C&P Mode as they feel under threat; rather than the C&C Mode necessary to listen to feedback, learn, and change. We cannot prevent someone being triggered and we cannot ever control how they react: this is always their own responsibility. It will depend on how much inner work they have done and how much trauma and adverse experience they have had.
We don’t ever cause people to be upset or angry. But, as transformational leaders, we can always own our own capacity to inspire safety, connection, and adaptability rather than inspire fear, threat, and pain. Before we intervene with any team member or collaborator, we want to settle our own nervous system, regulate our own emotions, and find our own sense of connection.
Before we start coaching, we want to find our inner calm and our sweet spot as a leader. Yet we do not want to beat about the bush either, sucking up precious transformation time because we are fearful of being disliked. We want to be both empathic and caring; but also straight and direct. We want to listen deeply for what people mean, not just what they say; and then tell them our perspective on their performance. The more we master how to guide and intervene with compassionate yet straight and generative feedback, the more team members and collaborators will be empowered to break through outdated patterns and step up to fulfill their potential for themselves as opposed to just obeying the rules.
At all times, we want to avoid questioning anyone’s core intentions or morality. We have to trust that, in their world, they are doing the best they can. Attempt to adjust their behavior but not judge their character. When having difficult conversations and giving tough feedback, we transmit what psychologist Carl Rogers called ‘unconditional positive regard’—no matter how people react to what we say. Easier said than done, but every interaction is an opportunity to practice and build muscle!
Ultimately, every human alive needs to take care of himself/herself. While we can care for our team members and coach them to be more empowered and valuable to the team, we can never do their life or career for them. This means careful discernment between being a coach, mentor, and guide; being a manager ourselves that is accountable to the business; being a leader who is a steward of an organization’s future success; and being a co-worker who should not have to do therapy for people or solve everyone’s personal issues in a professional environment.
We will no doubt encounter colleagues in the workplace who have pernicious and persistent protective patterns that sabotage them each day (after all, every human being does). Some will be outies with overly porous boundaries and find it hard to contain their emotions and ideas. Some will be innies with overly rigid boundaries and so find it hard to express their passion and creativity fully. Some may have significant personality and/or mood disorders.
Weak boundaries flood the workplace with drama, victimhood, and exhausting demands on everyone’s attention. Rigid boundaries block the flow of insights and ideas from team members that we need to develop adaptive projects and innovations. Helping people find their own Third Way creative harmony is key to an effective transformation team. This might include suggesting they seek professional support from a therapist or mental health expert to work on their own boundary issues, trauma, and protective patterning.
At the very heart of every transformational team and effective collaboration is a nuanced and wise understanding of the need for both individual rights and collective responsibilities. We want to cultivate both accountability and agility: C&P Mode and C&C Mode. We want to create spaces and cultures of psychological safety and mutual trust that afford creativity and adaptation (rights); but never at the expense of personal accountability and interpersonal reciprocity (responsibilities).
This means discerning, in the micro-moments, whether the moment calls for the prioritization of safety because people are feeling stressed or scared; or whether it requires people to step up and be more responsible and complain less. On one hand, we don’t want team members walking around demanding to feel good all the time, or to have to be persuaded to do their job properly. Yet neither do we want people walking around repeating best practice in order to please us; or to work hard just to get a bonus when what is needed is passionate creativity and empowered
Ultimately, many moments need a fine balance between rights and responsibilities, between mutual trust and mutual reciprocity. We want to have a creative harmony between individual initiative to get stuff done, with collective sense-making and decision-making when it is appropriate and valuable to deliver the full purpose of a project. We want to encourage people to feel safe enough to bring their whole selves to work; yet also ensure we do not disable them with too much micro-management, feedback sessions, and team huddles.
This means working on our own capacity to “hold space” for others to transform; while not allowing the team to descend into constant self-reflection, trust exercises, and navel-gazing. The aim is always to be building agile yet accountable cross-functional and multi-generational teams whose members contribute fully to deliver ambitious transformational projects.
Longer term, as we build transformational teams around our projects, we want to embrace diversity in our team not because of compliance but because diversity of all kinds (including of mindset and heartset), brings creativity and divergent thought that are essential for adaptation and transformation. We want to nurture a diverse group with many different perspectives and skills, yet focus them on a common purpose and a shared vision of what transformational excellence looks like.
With diverse cross-functional teams, we have to find ways to harmonize the different needs, ideas, and talents of diverse people without spending hours each day ensuring everyone feels good and that all are aligned. Roles need to be clear while still adaptable; and hand off moments and responsibility areas must be thought about with care, lest we lose either accountability or agility (or both). I highly recommend exploring and evolving adaptive ways to design teams and processes that balance efficiency and control (C&P Mode) with creativity and agility (C&C Mode). This is the subject of my book Become A Transformational
It is critical, in our development of collaboration-generating transformational leadership, to understand that there is a spectrum of different types of collaboration. I outline five types in our work building collaborations: closed; co-ordination; co-operation; collaboration; co-creation. They get progressively more innovative, but also more risky, as we move from closed to open. On one extreme—in closed projects—we essentially tell people what to do and when to do it to deliver. On the other extreme—in full co-creation—everyone is an equal as we innovate together into the unknown.
Our job as leader is to discern which type is appropriate for a given project (and a given moment in a project); and what help people need to adapt their mindset, behaviors, and agreements to fit the type. None of the types of collaboration are inherently better or more valuable than another. They all have different benefits and costs; and they lead to quite different outcomes. Each mode requires us to be a different flavor or shade of transformational leader. When the time comes for genuine business transformations—and it always will—we need to be able to flex between being highly directive and totally open to new directions.
As a collaborative transformational leader, we must always be up for evolving how we ourselves show up in relationships; and the protective patterns that are causing stress and conflict. With lashings of embodied wisdom, we will be acutely aware that we will all bring templates and imprints from past relationships into the present. Any, and every, encounter with another person in the workplace is an opportunity to heal historic disturbances within our relational fields, and update our relationship patterns so they are fit for the future. For example, we might treat our boss like we did our older brother; or a team member as we did our little sister. This past-driven imprint in our relational field will hold the team back from forging the future.
We have to be prepared to do more inner work to transform within: repairing the historic relationships in the memory storage of our bodymind; and then repairing the live relationships afterwards: apologizing where necessary and forgiving absolutely. This level of vulnerability, being exposed without being weak, is a formidable strength to develop. The most transformational talent will see it, appreciate it, and model it themselves. It is utterly natural for all relationships to have ruptures from time to time. Therefore, the team-inspired transformational leaders know how elegantly, generously, and generatively to repair relationships after a ‘fall’; and transcend differences to reach ever-higher levels of group coherence.
Pay particular attention to cultivating strong yet semipermeable boundaries. We want to be vulnerable and ready to take on the feedback and perspectives of our team members without taking it personally; while still being ‘the boss’ whom others must respect and, at times, obey without comment in order for transformation to be delivered. We want to allow in insights from our team to transform elements of our own shadow. We want to allow our compassion and kindness to flow out into our teams. Yet we don’t want to be uncontained and unbounded, splurging out our emotions or desires. Nor do we want to be rigid, uncaring, emotionally withdrawn.
Above all, we definitely want to avoid developing any form of dependence, co-dependence, or excessive independence that are all remnants of earlier stages of leadership development. As Transformers, we embrace interdependence: we honor and nurture the web of reciprocal relationships that make our projects (and life) work; without needing others, or rejecting others, in order to strong and whole.
Trauma-driven fixations in our development can easily lock us into co-dependent relationships in which we need our employees to like/respect/applaud us so that we feel good. We cannot need team members to like us all the time. We have to be okay with them reacting in all manner of ways to our ideas, directions, and guidance. Team members will likely react with protective patterns of blame, shame, and complain when they feel threatened, destabilized, or lacking in self-esteem.
Telling people that change is needed, and giving them tough feedback that aims to adjust inappropriate behavior, are likely to trigger employees to dislike us in moments. Such is the life of a leader. We must clearly transmit to others that we do not need to be liked; and are comfortable being a leader not a mate or friend. This might mean going out for drinks less often and being less involved in company gossip—without becoming an aloof and hierarchical boss who looks down from on high.
People are people and their protective patterns will inevitably lead to conflict whenever projects are critical and livelihoods are at risk: exactly the kinds of situations with which transformational leaders must engage, and lead their teams through, regularly.
The people-wise transformational leader knows that all and every conflict is a huge opportunity for team transformation. Rather than shy away from conflict (with flight, freeze, and fawn patterns like being ‘nice’ or avoidant) or charge straight into conflicts (with fiery fight patterns like being right or blaming people), we want to see conflict for what it is: evidence that various C&P Mode protective patterns are fighting for power in a struggle for control. This means that conflict is essentially team creativity waiting to be unleashed. It occurs because people care.
If everyone involved in a conflict can come into C&C Mode, new insights will flow. The way out of conflict is not for any one pattern to win or to ‘split the difference’ with a weak, vanilla compromise: but for all involved to understand where and why they are being reactive and to see what opens up when they enter a more creative and empathic environment. For it is these self-same protective patterns that are likely locking the team and the enterprise in old thinking, legacy processes, and mismatched business models that are not a fit for the future. Conflict sets us up for transformation, as long as we have mastered how to move through it wisely rather than smartly.
When something is really not working in the team—or the team is dealing with a major loss or shocking event—there are scores of valuable interventions we can lead to restore a team to a more creatively and palintonically harmonious state. All interventions should be designed with deep insight into where our team is at across the four elements: hands, head, heart, and hara.
Mindful of the balance between rights and responsibilities, it can be valuable to include the team itself in the diagnosis and resolution of team issues in a spirit of shared responsibility. After all, everyone is responsible for the effectiveness of the team. Crisis and breakdowns are always upgrade opportunities for everyone in the team.
We can lead a “collective inquiry” into what is occurring so everyone in the group can contribute his/her perspective; and everyone in the team can also learn what is needed to learn to step-up. Genuine co-creative dialogues like this are brilliant for rejuvenating team spirit and for solving team issues: but we don’t want them to suck all our transformation time. We are leading teams and collaborations not simply for the growth and learning of all (though this is important). We are leading teams to deliver ambitious collaborative goals that nobody could execute on their own.