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Leaders collaborate

By Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove

The chef Vivek Singh arrived in London – for the first time – with his small team of chefs in December 2000. ‘All of the people who worked with me moved. It was a journey, an exciting change from doing a certain kind of cooking that everybody else was doing, to something that only we would be doing.’ On 21 March 2001 the Cinnamon Club restaurant opened its doors to the public with Singh and his team at the helm.

Prior to accepting the job, Singh had never previously visited the UK. Suddenly, he was involved in the launch of a restaurant right in the heart of London and one which was making claims to revolutionize the eating experience. ‘In many ways ignorance is bliss. I never really thought about whether it would succeed or not. Naivety! I had nothing to lose,’ says Singh. ‘I wanted to cook, I wanted to do more, and more. And the more you do, the more you want to do.’ In three months Singh had to figure out the groundbreaking food to accompany the groundbreaking customer experience. He had to discover suppliers in a strange city and much more.

Vivek Singh arrived in London with a team of five chefs. Two more were added for Cinnamon Club’s launch. That team now is twenty strong. Of the eight people in the original kitchen, six are still with the group. In an industry famed for its high staff turnover, the 125 Cinnamon employees remain exceptionally loyal.

Leadership is inextricably caught up with individualism, but the reality is that leaders need teams. Leadership is team work.

Wharton’s Katherine J. Klein spent ten months studying medical teams in action at the Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore. Her close up view of leadership in action led her to adopt a unique perspective on leadership ‘as a system or a structure – a characteristic not of individuals but of the organization or unit as a whole’. Leadership is reconstrued in this world view as a dispersed activity rather than the monopoly of individuals.

In the fraught, pressured conditions that the trauma unit worked in, where poor decisions or wasted seconds might mean the difference between life and death, leadership was ‘a role – or, more specifically, a dynamic, socially enabled and socially constrained set of functions which may be filled by the numerous individuals who, over time, occupy key positions of expert authority on the team.’

In such a situation leadership was the product of the organization or unit’s ‘norms, routines and role definitions’. The function of the leader existed separately from the many different people who fulfilled the role depending on the circumstances.

Klein identified four key leadership functions: providing strategic direction; monitoring team performance; instructing team members; and providing hands-on assistance when required.

Based on Klein’s findings, organizations should put in place the structures needed to support whoever steps into a leadership position – have well established roles and clearly identified norms – rather than concentrate on selecting brilliant leaders.

Truly dispersed and fairly distributed leadership is unusual. More obviously attainable, perhaps, is the notion of collaborative leadership which Herminia Ibarra and Morten Hansen of INSEAD have looked at. ‘No company has all the resources that it needs in house, so we have to work across boundaries. That is the essence of collaborative leadership, simply mobilizing and inspiring people to get great results working across boundaries,’ says Ibarra (who won the Leadership Award at the 2013 Thinkers50). ‘What kind of leadership allows organizations to identify interesting collaborative opportunities, to bring the best talents to those opportunities, and then to lead the process so that it gets to an effective result? Collaborative leadership is far removed from the traditional command and control model.’

Ibarra identifies several areas that leaders need to focus on to become good collaborative leaders. To start with they need to build networks that allow them to add value collaboratively through connections. Leaders should also engage diverse talent from a broad range from the periphery. ‘That periphery could be other geographies, other nationalities, generational, bringing other people into the discussion, gender diversity, it could be many things,’ she says.

Establishing conditions conducive to the collaborative process comes next. That includes eradicating any politics and turf wars that might obstruct collaboration. ‘You have to role model that from the top; if you don’t have your collaborative potential at the top it just does not happen.’

And lastly, says Ibarra, show a strong hand. There is no call for collaboration on everything. A constant need for consensus can kill collaboration. Instead, the collaborative leader knows when to step back and when to take action to keep collaboration moving forward and adding value.

And, in order to master collaborative leadership, leaders will have to disavow themselves of some commonly held on views on leadership. Take situational leadership, and the need for command and control leadership in certain situations, for example.

‘This idea of situational leadership is really engrained,’ says Ibarra. ‘People believe that when times are good they can do all the good things, they can let go, they can collaborate infinitely. But when times are hard, it is time to close ranks, now you have to direct and control. That is not true. When times are tough, that’s when we need ideas, that’s when we need to reach out further. I think that is the real barrier, the sense that there is time for each, and command and control is still the answer to tough times.’


Herminia Ibarra and Morten Hansen’s article ‘Are you a collaborative leader?’ can be found in Harvard Business Review, July-August 2011.

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