Brief Introduction to Collective Leadership

Creating shared outcomes from a shared purpose and vision

Understanding Collective Leadership

Collective leadership is:
a form of leadership based on shared values for achieving impact in the public interest, , rather than individual leadership based on self-interest

Our overriding definition of collective leadership shown above is based on experience and research.

Compass Leadership Limited

The Concept of Collective Leadership

In promoting collective leadership, we draw together different leadership levels and approaches that adapt to the context in which leadership occurs. We consider the different requirements towards, and needs of, the diverse levels of leadership and its recipients. We support collective leadership development using our conceptual framework and operational model underpinned by our six intelligent leadership questions. A three-dimensional matrix aligns the concepts to its practice by aligning (1) the identified leadership challenge, (2) the problem profile and (3) the leadership style ranging from individual to distributed (within the institution) and shared (across collaborating institutions) within networks.

Applying Collective Leadership in Practice

Our research and development are iterative, with continuous learning based on conceptual principles. Applied leadership challenges (ALCs) are facilitated by hands-on and peer-led development. The ALCs are grounded in action learning principles through practical application within a leadership ‘space’ combining virtual and face-to-face peer-led learning and implementation. A LINKS360®learning and application process exists focused on the approach of ‘Leading through 360° Intelligent Networks, Knowledge and Skills’. A Virtual Total Learning Environment (virtual campus) supports blended learning in gaining knowledge through cutting edge e-learning media and resources and direct face-to-face interaction.

This e-portal outlines all aspects of our approach to research-informs development – informs practice with optional access to more detailed research and further reading. In all cases, we aim to provide a practical set of tools and techniques to support the understanding, creation, and demonstration of collective leadership.

Addressing the challenges of collective leadership

The age of uncertainty

We live and lead in an age of complexity and uncertainty. One of the reasons collective leadership faces so many barriers is that this style challenges the traditional approaches to leadership, which have developed over a few thousand years. Leadership capacity and capabilities face challenges in the 21st century that have never been experienced before, such as the digital revolution—responding to existing challenges differently (such as the Covid-19 pandemic spanning 2020 through to 2022 is a prime example of the need to adapt to complexity. New and existing but transforming challenges require new ways of thinking. Leaders need to reimagine how they will lead.

An outline of the challenges

A critical challenge is that components of collective leadership exist separately and often determine leadership practice in isolation from each other. Individual leadership will often overshadow the collective. Our History of Leadership (HoL) e-chapter presented some of the broad but most popular theories and thinking over the last four thousand years! As we said at the outset, trying to define leadership is like trying to keep hold of a slippery eel.

Why do some people shine in leadership roles whereas significant others struggle? As argued in our HoL e-chapter, most studies, or treatises major on leaders’ characteristics, referred to as ‘trait’ theories. The ‘Great man’ theory is the most well-known, dating from the 1700s with Thomas Carlyle. Recognising that contexts and situations differ led to contingency and situational theories, whereas others sought to determine the behaviours that leaders adopted, sometimes aligning this with the different contexts. Psychology has played a critical role since the 1930s. The most controversial is that leaders are born; the skills were simply innate as they were born with their abilities. More recently, the focus has shifted towards leadership style, primarily on a spectrum ranging from laissez-faire in which leaders leave things to take their course, without direct interference, to transactional and, ultimately, transformational.

Laissez-faire leaders trust and rely on their team members, enabling their colleagues to be creative and resourceful and apply their experience and learning to achieve shared goals. Transactional leaders favour structure and good organisation to achieve goals and value efficiency. Our view is that transactional behaviour is more managerial than visionary. Both are needed, but transformational leaders focus on vision and values and seek to inspire others through the enablement of creativity (as with laissez-faire) but play a key role in maintaining momentum. Trust in the transformational leader remains essential, and true transformational leaders will be authentic. Unfortunately, some pseudo-transformational leaders purport to be transformational, but the reality is they are more transactional.

Why do different leadership styles offer a challenge to collective leadership?

Our approach demarcates collective from more traditional, individual-based leadership on the importance of the public interest. As pointed out by the Institute for Chartered Accountants England and Wales (ICAEW, 2012), we acknowledge the presumption that people should be able to go about their own business in their own interests. They will interact with and be influenced by other people, but this becomes more complex when state institutions, such as governments and regulators, seek to intervene based on public interest. During this, they will interact with other people and influence and be influenced by their activities. However, there are other influences on people’s activities: when governments, regulators and others seek to intervene in the public interests (Icaew, 2012). But what is the public interest?

Leading in the public interest

Defining the public interest

The public interest is often defined as acts that focus on the public’s well-being or, originating from Aristotle, the common good. This sounds simple enough. The reality is different. As with leadership, the public interest is difficult to define and, in some cases, described as counterproductive. Evidence has shown that some decision-makers are accused of “invoking the public interest as a smokescreen to disguise self-interest action” (ICAEW,2012: 6). We discuss the public interest in more detail in the later section, which considers public value. For now, we make the brief but critical point that the public interest is a practical and worthwhile measure in any policy or public leadership analysis, whether by virtue of action or the decision to act in a particular way or to the desired end.

Responding to multiple public interests

Collective leadership is complex. It consists of multiple challenges and contexts, several layers of leadership, multiple stakeholders, and a plethora of potential outcomes. The impact of the collective leadership will determine the outcome patterns. Given that an overabundance of outcome measures is likely for anyone given collective leadership activity, it is essential to define an outcome framework that will help us assess the impact of collective leadership. The public value model, first presented by Mark Moore (Moore, 1995), developed a strategic framework based on what is now commonly referred to as the strategic triangle encompassing the three components (authorising environment, social goals and organisational capability). [include the link]

We also make a further vital point regarding what is meant by public leadership.

Our scope for public leadership is not just for traditional public management or public administration. We are all members of the public. As such members, we remain public as customers, consumers, or contributors to the not-for-profit sector, just as we do if we engage with or are employed by the public sector. Stephen Brookes and Keith Grint encompassed this within their 2010 definition of new public leadership. We repeat this here as the authors define new public leadership as a form of collective leadership:

A form of collective leadership in which public bodies and agencies collaborate in achieving a shared vision based on shared aims and values and distribute this through each organisation in a collegiate way that seeks to promote, influence and deliver improved public value as evidenced through sustained social, environmental and economic well-being within a complex and changing context. (Brookes and Grint 2010:1)

A Public Value test for assessing Collective Leadership

Some diverse stakeholders have an interest in the outcome of collective leadership. By including the term agency alongside public bodies, we include non-publicly funded institutions as agents of public value. The term consists of people and organisations acting on behalf of another or providing a particular service and a business, body, or organisation furnishing such services or negotiating transactions on behalf of a person or group .

We suggest that a Public Value Test is an appropriate framework for assessing the outcome of collective leadership. High-level measures include assessing whether social (public) goals (as defined by stakeholders) are delivered in a way that secures trust and legitimacy. Achieving social goals and ensuring trust and legitimacy are balanced by assuring organisational capability and capacity to support the desired public interest outcomes.

We will continuously refer to our suggested public value test throughout this web portal.


Icaew. (2012) Acting in the public interest: a framework for analysis. ICAEW thought leadership, market foundations initiative. London: Institute for Chartered Accountants England and Wales

Moore, M. H. (1995) Creating public value: strategic management in government. Cambridge, Mass.; London: Harvard University Press.

The Selfless Leader