In 2017 I was nominated by a colleague for the “Future Leaders Award”, which recognises talent in leadership amongst women of medium-sized organisations. As part of the selection process, I was invited to a face-to-face interview with a panel of five seasoned leaders in different fields. I was then asked a variety of questions trying to assess my leadership potential, and one question, in particular, stuck in my memory long after that day: “What do you think is your leadership style?”. It is hard to answer such a general question, but my answer explained that I have two dominant leadership styles: in war-time, when the company is facing “dire straits” and decisions have to be made quickly and with little information, then my style would be more like a Commander of the Fleet; in peace-time, when the business is moving more predictably, I am more of a collaborative leader.
I must admit that I definitely feel more comfortable in the second style of leading. Even though it takes more time than the traditional style of control-and-command, I find sharing information and ideas very fulfilling. That happens not just within my team but horizontally across the organisation as well. The free flow of information and ideas allows team members to come up with more informed, creative and innovative solutions to problems, it promotes ownership of the decisions reached and buy-in from everyone at the execution stage.
In order to achieve the collaboration level needed, I need to rely not only on my position of power and authority as an MD, but be able to influence people from other teams and departments. Not only are collaborative leaders tasked with managing people, but they also have to manage the collaborative process that leads to collaborative problem-solving and decision making.
I have also found an unexpected benefit from this style of leadership – the process of allowing everyone to contribute ideas and solutions also puts a level of responsibility and independence to the team members. This allows them to experience leadership responsibilities and provides opportunities for their own professional development into future leaders. Collaborative leaders were not born like that; they have learned the skills through observing good role models that have demonstrated the benefits of this style.
This style of leadership has been made infinitely more practical through the use of the constantly evolving technology available to us. My team now is seamlessly working and collaborating on projects from three different countries in three different time zones. This would have not been possible five years ago. Technology also allows us to break down the silos which we tend to build when we worry that sharing information will undermine our position. Sharing information across departments, teams and divisions can only lead to more informed team members who see the big picture and do spend their time speculating the context of the problem.
There are of course difficulties with this style of leading. It does take a lot more time to get to the root causes of problems instead of just reacting and firefighting issues over and over again. Conflicts will need to be addressed directly and not brushed under the carpet for later. Probably the most challenging one is being able to leave your ego outside the door. Collaboration is a team effort.
I just have one word of caution – do not confuse collaborative leadership for consensus leadership. Responsibility and accountability for decisions is still firmly on me. If a consensus is not reached – which is often the case with people who have been given the freedom and trust to express their opinions, the leader will need to make the final call and shoulder the consequences of that.
About the author
Dessy Ohanians is the Managing Director of Executive Education at the London School of Business and Finance (LSBF).