Leadership – It’s Not Always Immediately Obvious

Collaborative Leadership: of the six different leadership profiles described in Leadership Strengths Profiles, this is the one most commonly misunderstood. This is not surprising as the hallmarks of Collaborative Leadership, subtlety, refinement, nuance, elegance, and unobtrusiveness are the exact opposite of the stereotypical descriptions of leadership – boldness, daring, visionary, and audacious. Collaborative Leadership is restrained and understated and its presence is sometimes not overtly noticed in day to day situations until you know what you are looking for. Unlike some other leadership profiles, Collaborative Leadership does not step boldly forward and declare itself, but when it’s removed its absence is felt and noticed by everyone.

Gary M. Jordon, Ph.D.

Gary M. Jordon, Ph.D.

My wife is a Collaborative Leader, so I have had the advantage of observing her leadership skills for over thirty-five years. Several years ago, she created a group of her closest women friends to meet together on a monthly basis. Once a month these women would gather at my home (I was invited to leave while they were meeting!) for food, conversation, ritual, and more. Sounds simple, right? Not on your life!

Several months of planning and preparation went into creating the group. Prior to inviting each woman into the group, my wife spoke casually and individually with each of them, neither about the group nor, at first, the possibility of a group, but about the topics and issues that were important to her and each of the potential members. Only when she was sure there would be agreement, interest, participation, and synergy, did she formally announce her intention to form a group and issue invitations. Each of the eleven women accepted, and the group was a reality.

For a year the group met monthly. While not privy to the content, I know and am in contact with enough of the members myself to know that everyone found their time together meaningful, interesting, provocative, and at times, challenging. All of the women looked forward to the meetings, and whenever a member was unable to attend, she expressed real regret. During that year, the women made new friends and valuable connections.

The group began in December of 2009. In November of 2010 my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. The full treatment took eight months with another four to six months for recovery.  During her treatment, the group continued to meet but not at my house. Women took turns hosting the meetings. Although my wife attended many of the get-togethers, as you might expect, she wasn’t involved in the planning or coordination of the events. Even after she regained much of her health and vitality she supported the “rotating” hosting of the group out of a desire to share that role equally with the other members.

Several months ago one of the meetings drew only three women, and it was obvious to my wife that the group was missing something. I chuckled inside because it was clear to me what it was missing: her “invisible” leadership. One of the other members independently made the same assessment and described the issue in this way:

“As I look back on the first year and the second year it is clear to me that the group depended on Sarah’s leadership. But, if you observed the evening and were then asked to name the leader of the group, based on what you observed, you would have remarked that we were all in it together. It’s strange because she never took the spotlight, never ‘took charge’ in a very direct or authoritative manner, never ‘ran’ the meeting.  Instead she was the glue, the guide that kept us together and engaged.  It’s clear that what she did was critical to the group’s success.”

Collaborative Leadership is not about shared leadership in the sense that Collaborative Leaders cooperate with other leaders in a group (although they are happy to do so); rather, they lead by getting all the members to work and share with each other. Carefully and subtly they bring people together around a common purpose and expertly keep them aligned with that purpose. Collaborative Leaders are comfortable giving their followers the room to explore and fully experience the journey as well as share that experience with other followers as they make their way towards their common objectives and direction. The direction towards which Collaborative Leaders lead their followers is more a broadly defined experience rather than a specific place. Their leadership impact is felt in terms of shared personal development as an integral part of goal accomplishment.

With a nudge in the right place, a simple unassuming comment to the right person, or by making subtle connections between other members, they keep the purpose and direction for a group or community alive and well. Collaborative Leaders will shift with their followers if they feel that their followers are losing interest in the destination but only when they are sure that it is due to a shift of interest not a lack of leadership.  When Collaborative Leaders step into their own strengths as leaders, their effectiveness with and loyalty from followers is amazing.

And, oh yes, my wife determined that most of the members wanted the group to continue, but didn’t that they didn’t know what needed to happen in order to revitalize it. Once again, with gentle conversation and subtle connection she transformed the direction of the group and secured interest and commitment.

The group met at my house again last Sunday, and seven women were in attendance – two others were out of town and could not attend (with regrets), and the remaining two have moved out of state. All eleven original members accounted for, an important group re-convened, and a revitalized community intact – Collaborative Leadership at its best!

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