Collective Dimensions of Leadership

  • Sonia M. OspinaEmail author
  • Erica Gabrielle FoldyEmail author
Living reference work entry


Complex Adaptive System Collective Dimension Leadership Theory Formal Leader Collaborative Governance 
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Recent theories claim that leadership does not reside exclusively in the leader but is also a property of the collective (group, organization, social system) and thus has both individual and collective qualities. The phrase “collective dimensions of leadership” signals the importance of shifting attention from the single “heroic” leader to the emergent processes and practices that help actors interact, coconstruct meaning, and advance a common goal unattainable by themselves.


Complex social problems that cannot be solved by single organizations or sectors are increasingly addressed through multiorganizational and cross-sectorial efforts that engage people across boundaries to develop innovative and sustainable solutions. As a more collaborative approach takes root within the frameworks of public policy and administration, the very idea that leadership for the common good resides within a single individual leader has started to lose currency (Crosby and Bryson 2010). New interest in how to foster more facilitative, integrative, and inclusive environments to address collaborative governance challenges has also motivated questions about the nature of leadership, both in bureaucracies and network contexts. Governance arrangements today highlight the need to attend to the collective dimensions of leadership (Ospina and Foldy 2015).

The term “collective” in “the collective dimensions of leadership” implies viewing leadership as a phenomenon that implicates all members of a group rather than one or even several individual members. Because attention to the collective dimensions of leadership is a relatively recent development, the terminology is still in flux. “Collective leadership” is sometimes used to describe forms that incorporate more than one person in the leadership role, such as in coleadership or team leadership, or to refer to situations where the leadership role is fluid, and rotated among people, as in distributed or shared leadership. Often these variations are referred to as “collectivistic leadership” (Yammarino et al. 2012) or “leadership in the plural” (Denis et al. 2012). Focusing on the space between the leader and the follower, some stress the relational nature of leadership, a collective quality that operates within interactions with others. And yet others identify this collective quality with leadership in nontraditional organizational forms like networks and multisector partnerships, where more than one person is implicated in leadership roles or activities.

In this entry, “collective leadership” encompasses all theories that conceptualize leadership as an emergent, coconstructed process, independent of the manifestations it takes in the real world. The leader is reframed as the visible part of a broader process that involves many persons interacting with one another in an emergent and shifting network of relationships, and it is at this collective level that leadership happens. These theories espouse a movement from a leader-centered perspective to a collective leadership perspective, thus pointing to the collective dimensions of leadership (Uhl-Bien and Ospina 2012).

Why a Collective Leadership Perspective Today?

Two different explanations offer justification for the need to broaden the understanding of leadership from singular to plural and thus consider its collective dimensions. Both are important and suggest different intellectual strands of a collective leadership perspective.

One focuses on broad trends and changes in society to suggest that a new and more relational form of leadership is now required. This approach, collective leadership as trend, explains the shift away from leader-centered perspectives by associating it with the broad changes taking place in a postindustrial society and the organization of work. In an era characterized by disruptive change and interdependence, managerial authority has declined. Instead, organizations search for alternatives to simple hierarchies, such as teamwork and strategic alliances.

Another explanation focuses on a way of thinking and viewing leadership as a social phenomenon that is always relational, independent of context. This strand, collective leadership as lens, proposes that any form of leadership – from top-down to collaborative – is plural. Leadership cannot be understood simply as an influence relationship between two social actors – leader and follower – who exist in those capacities, prior to the relationship. Leadership (and those defined as leaders or followers) emerges as coconstructed meanings that help a group advance organizing tasks.

Leadership scholars espousing both perspectives agree that leadership theory must move from a heroic, leader-centered perspective on leadership toward a post-heroic, broader perspective that explores the collective dimensions of leadership. They both apply a relational lens to the leadership field, embedding the leader-follower relationship at the center of multiple intersections, acting within a broad system that shapes its form.

Public administration scholars agree that the time is ripe for a broader conceptualization of leadership beyond individuals. The point is to focus also on processes, context, and complexity and to consider actors beyond formal leaders, arenas beyond the bureaucracy, and levels of analysis such as the interorganizational and systems of networks. Phrases such as the shared dimensions of public sector leadership, public leadership as a form of collective leadership, and public followership are slowly entering the conversation.

Scholars tend to associate this with a changing public landscape characterized by networks for knowledge, information sharing, service delivery and policy reform, and the recurrent use of multistakeholder groups and formal public-private partnerships as policy tools. The argument is that shifts from pyramids to webs and from production to coproduction change the nature of public leadership. Leadership challenges include how to develop collaborative relationships between politicians and public managers, and between these and civil society actors, within the boundaries of legally authorized roles.

However, the required levels of collaboration are inconsistent with largely hierarchical structures, systems, and bureaucratic styles of public leadership. In fact, they reflect the paradoxical need to protect constitutionally grounded merit systems and democratic values, while adapting fluid and flexible organizational forms that promote innovation and adaptability. This means operating under old rules and vertical relationships of accountability, while introducing new rules and horizontal relationships of accountability. These conditions of paradox require collective leadership from actors in all branches and at all levels of government.

Exploring the Collective Dimensions of Leadership

The leadership literature has increased attention to the collective dimensions of leadership. This implies moving from questions about how formal leaders’ traits, styles, and behavior influence followers or vice versa to how processes and systems of relationships produce leadership in a group, organization, or system.

From individual traits to styles and behaviors – Leadership theories in popular culture give weight to the leader as the primary source of leadership. Leader-centered models identify personal qualities as predictors of effective leadership such as high internal locus of control, emotional maturity, and power motivation, among others.

Individual behaviors, actions, and styles enacting these traits are clustered, codified, and measured at the individual level of analysis. For example, the transformational leadership questionnaire (TLQ) includes nine factors characterizing the effective leader, such as a genuine interest in empowering others; integrity and trustworthiness; and decisiveness and determination. While helpful to offer diagnostic tools for individuals aspiring to lead, the field has recognized this offers an incomplete picture.

From styles to relationships – In reaction, relationship-centered and follower-centered perspectives broaden the focus of interest to dimensions like the quality of the leader-follower relationship itself. Leader-member exchange or LMX, for example, claims that high-quality relationships yield high levels of mutual trust, support, and obligation, thus influencing leadership effectiveness. But the focus is on the quality of the leader-member dyad, shaped primarily by the leader, rather than on shared or collective benefits of the exchange.

Likewise, follower-centered theories – such as the romance of leadership theory, psychoanalytic and social identity leadership theories – emphasize the role of followers in shaping leaders, thus including more complex social processes. For example, these theories claim that followers make attributions of leadership to certain individuals in order to cope with the anxieties associated with group dynamics, usually authorizing leaders who share their beliefs, backgrounds, and identities. In this scholarship leadership does not exist without follower recognition. But the basic assumptions about the nature of leadership do not change. Leaders and followers are separate entities, taking up leadership or follower roles as individuals, even if in a more fluid way than granted by the leader-centered perspective. The epicenter of leadership remains the individual leader, enacting relationship with followers who may engage in reciprocal influence.

From relationships to systems and emergent processes – Theories giving priority to collective dimensions of leadership rely on different assumptions. They locate the source of leadership one level up from the individual or the relationship, in the broader system of relationships where individuals operate. In this collective space, leadership emerges as individuals interact and respond to others, with particular contexts shaping how leadership happens and the form it takes.

But these theories vary according to how they view the collective dimensions of leadership. Those who see collective leadership as trend highlight contemporary contexts characterized by decentralized decision-making, networks of relationships, and horizontal authority. Examples include distributive leadership theory, network leadership theory (NLT), and complexity leadership theory.

Distributed leadership theory, for example, sees leadership roles as decoupled from formal positions of authority and distributed across the organization. More than one leader may emerge in different locations, time periods, and task contexts. The role of the leader or follower is dynamic and reciprocal, and any person may take up one or the other given the situation. Network leadership theory (NLT) illuminates the relational structures that connect people in influence relationships and undergird attributions of leaders and followers. It assumes that microlevel interactions do not just simply add up to produce properties at systemic level. Instead the latter represents a different level of action, which is also where leadership resides. The network lens helps understand leadership across bounded contexts, including traditional hierarchies and formal interorganizational and cross-sector networks (Cullen-Lester and Yammarino 2016).

Complexity leadership theory understands organizations as complex adaptive systems (CAS), a particular type of networked system. Like in NLT, leadership emerges when networked individuals interact but with an added functional requirement: adaptability. CAS are organic and fluid networks of interacting agents engaged in the cooperative work necessary to adapt to uncertainty. Leadership appears not as a personal attribute, role, or hierarchical position. It is an emergent, interactive process that gives capacity to group members so they become innovative and adaptable to navigate complexity. Adaptive and enabling leaders, located across the system, are as important as administrative, formal leaders, located in positions of authority.

Those who perceive collective leadership as a lens draw on social constructionism, a social theory with great currency in the social sciences. Like collective leadership as trend, constructionist approaches view leadership, in all its forms, as a type of organizing agreement constructed in social interaction. But these approaches add another assumption: that leaders and followers are not independent bounded entities, who then engage with one another. Instead, they exist as beings-in-relation, their understanding of self created through relationship, with no separate, inherent core or status. Leadership, and “leaders” and “followers,” emerge as coconstructed meanings that help a group advance organizing tasks. In this view, leadership is achieved in community, owned by the group: leadership is collective by its very nature, not just when it takes collectivistic forms. Examples of strands exploring collective leadership as a lens are discursive leadership theory and relational social constructionist leadership.

Discursive leadership theory applies a communication lens that links the emergence of leadership to language, the main way humans share meaning and construct social reality. Switching attention from individual cognition to collective social and cultural systems, this theory emphasizes talk and discourse to understand how people think, see, and attribute leadership. Attention to discourse at the microlevel conversation and speech acts, and to discourse embedded in broader macrolevel assumptions, guides us in recognizing leadership, viewed as an emergent process of influence characterized by the management of meaning through the use of talk and corresponding actions to advance a task or goal.

Relational social constructionist leadership theory builds on the same assumptions but moves beyond discourse. Leadership is found in the outcomes of the group’s work, not in specific individuals producing it. Leadership happens when the results of the individual efforts of interdependent actors are experienced as collective achievements, hence its collective meaning. This lens assumes that meaning-making processes associated with leadership become visible as practicesrecurrent ways of doing things that have produced the desired outcomes and thus are viewed as good solutions to problems of organizing.

Hence leadership is not something that the leader, as one person in a position of authority or having taken up a leadership role, possesses. Instead, leadership is collective work and can be identified when members of a group find a path forward, commit to it, and adapt to changing circumstances.

Collaborative Governance and Collective Leadership

While many scholars in public administration and policy continue to explore leadership from a leader-centered perspective, others have started to explore its collective dimensions, both through lens and trend perspectives. These public leadership scholars explore the type of leadership capabilities needed for effective leadership work, including how to develop the organizational capacity to achieve extensive gains for the common good. Some explore how integrative leadership fosters collective processes of negotiation and deliberation for tackling complex problems requiring joint action across sector boundaries. Others focus on the work of leadership as a collective effort to see how nonprofit groups set direction, adapt to fluctuations, and mobilize allies for joint action to leverage power for social change.

Likewise, scholars interested in collaborative governance explore effective leadership in nonbureaucratic contexts, like interorganizational networks. This scholarship has proposed facilitation as the distinctive leadership quality, as leaders – positional and informal – create the conditions for members to contribute to the collaborative process. Steward, mediator, and catalyst roles are more or less salient at different times and in different people depending on collaboration conditions (Ansell and Gash 2012).

Challenging a leader-centric paradigm, some collaborative governance and public leadership scholars have also identified a variety of sources of leadership in networks, activities, processes, and structures. For example, leadership activities that advance the network’s work include managing power, controlling the agenda, representing and mobilizing member organizations, empowering members, and constructing the right community. Processes like stakeholder meetings, public meetings, and large conferences become leadership spaces where participants bring different ways of knowing and develop common ground for action, softening the boundaries of their prior identities. Participation in structures like councils, committees, and alliances generate shared meaning and shape the work without the need of a formal leader. These structures become convening mechanisms, foster group agreement, help set deadlines, and clarify expected roles and accountability relationships. Thus, leadership becomes a collective achievement rather than an individual capability.

Implications and Conclusion

Highlighting the collective dimensions of leadership has implications for leaders and leadership in public administration and public policy (Ospina and Foldy 2015). First, practicing collective leadership requires that effective leaders confront their expectations for a heroic leader motivating or even empowering followers. It means recognizing and nurturing other sources from which leadership can emerge, supporting other participants to take up leadership, and designing distributed leadership processes and structures.

Second, the public management literature documents that, while network structures and processes may generate more distributed forms of leadership, formal leaders also engage in more direct complementary action inside and beyond the network boundaries to ensure change. Sometimes dual leadership structures allow two visible leaders to share authority and develop complementary roles for the network, one more collaborative, one more directive. A collective leadership perspective can thus combine collaborative and directive behaviors, weaving together a facilitative function attending to relationality and a driving function attending to outcomes. The formal leader adapts, interprets, and differentiates in meaningful ways the unique quality of dyadic and group relationships.

Third, previous research on traditional forms of leadership has often abstracted actions or behaviors from their contexts. Much of the work on collective leadership sees context as a fundamental characteristic of the story, a core element. Collective leadership understands how context both frames the perceptions and activities of leaders and followers and is generated and shaped by leaders and followers. Using a context orientation surfaces invisible social dynamics that affect leadership perceptions and authority, such as how gendered images of leaders and leadership can work against collective approaches. A contextual orientation demands attention to the ingrained assumptions influencing workplace interactions that reproduce leader-centric practices when the environment calls for more collective approaches to leadership. Once these are visible, it is easier to counteract them directly.

Fourth, collective leadership by definition transgresses boundaries we often take for granted. Opening up leadership to those outside the boundary of traditional positions that grant authority represents a first step towards obliterating the boundary between leaders and followers. In addition, collective leadership incorporates practices, such as humility and vulnerability, outside the bounds of conventional leadership behaviors. It values a process and contextual orientation, comfort with ambiguity and paradox, and commitment to continuous learning. Moreover, leaders emphasizing the collective dimensions of their work often create bridging experiences by using objects – an initial feasibility study, a website, a memorandum of agreement – that enable participants from “different worlds” to work together to develop joint outcomes. Part of the formal leader’s work is to steward the design of these boundary experiences and boundary objects that highlight the collective dimensions of leadership.

Finally, for leaders promoting democratic governance, these implications suggest accepting that engaging others in making human life more livable is public leadership work. Leadership is about facilitating joint work to build a new reality where new frames and unforeseen actions emerge. When the group jointly owns these frames and solutions and puts them at the service of the common good, we see collective leadership happening in the public realm.



General Leadership References

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Public Administration References

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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Wagner Graduate School of Public ServiceNew York UniversityNew YorkUSA