A shared balance of Innate and Acquired Behaviour defines the Collective Leadership

An Anatomy of Leadership Opening Slide

Why an Anatomical view of Leadership?

Combining the Innate and the Acquired

This section aims to provide a simple but most important point for understanding collective leadership. Behind every collective are a range of individuals. We all think and act differently. We all have our values, and often, these values will compete for priority among groups of all sizes. Groups themselves clash. Collective leadership is not easy.

In the next section, we will start the journey of discovery by emphasising that we need to understand ourselves before understanding others. We are individuals with selfish motivations. This view was the ‘ah ha’ moment for Stephen Brookes in 2006 when he read Richard Dawkins’s 30th Anniversary edition of “The Selfish Gene”. He began to explore whether it was the selfish gene – innate to our sense of survival – which gets in the way of collective leadership. The idea of the Selfless Leader then emerged. The idea influenced his research for the next ten years (Brookes, 2016). Before delving into our journey of exploring collective leadership (the style for selfless leaders), we briefly introduce the essential concept of self-will.

Going with our gut usually makes for a better outcome than if we go on intellect alone
Perry (2018)

A question is whether this sense of self-will makes us different from animals. Biological intuition was a vital element of a detailed research framework that studied the mechanics behind the coordinated movement of mobile animal groups (collective motion). The research tells us that it is becoming increasingly clear that many nomadic animal groups (those that migrate) are composed of heterogeneous individuals with differential levels and types of influence over group behaviours. The ability to infer this differential influence, or leadership, is said to be critical to understanding group functioning in these collective animal systems. (Garland et al., 2018: 28).

Geese in Flight (V formation)

Most of us will have marvelled at the spectacular sight of Canada Geese flying in a ‘V’ formation.  It is also one of the most popular of metaphorical examples for collective leadership.

We can ask why they do this and what lessons are there for collective leadership? Shared and distributed leadership come to mind:

  • First, the Geese share the role of being the leader. The lead goose falls back when they need to rest, and the next in line takes over.
  • Each goose flies at a height marginally above those in front. This action reduces wind resistance and distributes the challenges evenly.
  • The formation improves safety and communication. The spacing and proximity assist members of the group to ‘watch each other’s back’ and communicate more effectively.

The research on the collective behaviour of mobile animal groups has importance for understanding human leadership as a systems-based phenomenon. We discuss system-led leadership in detail as part of our Leadership3 system in section 2, but, for now, we briefly use anatomical analogies of leadership to illustrate the main components and characteristics of collective leadership.

As reported by Phillip Perry, intuition has been a popular topic among psychological researchers in recent years. The research tells us that much nonconscious emotional information from the body (or brain) influences the decision-making process. We will rationalise the emotional aspects whilst ignoring many biases that also lead us to conclusions.

From the Anatomical to the Metaphorical

Metaphorical language often describes leadership and followership, particularly popular with anatomical allegories and personal mythology (Lindsay, 2013). Examples include getting our feet wet rather than diving right in, a strong pair of hands or a touch (of the hand) on the tiller, putting your heart into it or deciding with a heavy heart, and so it can go on. As Lindsay argues, metaphors are deeply entrenched in our everyday language and help us to make sense of our lives and dictate to a large degree how we live our lives (Lindsay, 2013: 5). Both anatomical and metaphorical language helps us understand the complexity of collective leadership more broadly and intelligent leadership more specifically.

Intelligent Leadership

The scientific delineator between humans and other animals is termed ‘the memory for stimulus sequences’, based on cognitive abilities not seen in other animals. We refer to this as intelligence for practical purposes and consider this from our metaphorical framing. It enables full language capacity, reasoning, and planning (Stockholm University, 2017) and how information is initially acquired and coded and processed through problem-solving (Ghirlanda et al., 2017)


Garland, J., Berdahl, A. M., Sun, J. & Bollt, E. M. (2018) Anatomy of leadership in collective behaviour. Chaos, 28(7).

Ghirlanda, S., Lind, J. & Enquist, M. (2017) Memory for stimulus sequences: A divide between humans and other animals? Royal Society Open Science, 4(6).

Lindsay, S. G. (2013) The Anatomy of Leadership. In: Melina, L. R., Burgess, G. J., Lid-Falkman, L., Marturano, A., Marturano, A. & Lid-Falkman, L. (eds.) The Embodiment of Leadership : A Volume in the International Leadership Series, Building Leadership Bridges. San Fransisco, CA.: Jossey-Bass.

Perry, P. (2018) Scientists are zeroing in on where intuition comes from, biologically. Surprising Science, January 2018.

The intelligence of the Hand, the Heart, the Head and the Soul

Selflessness is where a person is concerned more with the needs and expectations of others instead of with one’s own. Brookes emphasises the importance of intelligent leadership in defining collective leadership. Influenced by the work of Sydänmaanlakka, who saw Intelligent leadership as a means of dealing with a leadership deficit (Sydänmaanlakka, 2008), four kinds of intelligence are called upon:

“Intelligence of the hand (the skill to do things), intelligence of the head (the ability to reason things out), intelligence of the heart (awareness of one’s own feelings) and intelligence of the soul (clarity over the values guiding all action)” (2008:4).

Balancing the heart, the head and the soul

Leadership’s guiding hand can help shape the Values-led behaviour that defines the Collective Leader. A good leader does not have to be good at everything, and the idea that they have the answer to all leadership problems is not feasible. Leading from the heart is being values-led. Having the right values will lead to the right questions, determining the right space for integrated (collective) problem-solving. Those engaged in applying leadership within an applied leadership space will ask further questions that will cascade through to practical suggestions that could lead to solutions

Balancing the head with the heart will then follow. Good collective leaders will ensure that the evidence supports the actions taken in guiding discussion and decisions. The evidence will include feelings as well as facts. The soul is the repository of all that has happened and all that can happen. Making sense of our histories (both as individuals and as leaders) permits access to our souls, and the heroic journey takes us to our undiscovered realities (Lindsay, p.16). The soul is the repository of all that has happened and all that can happen.

The right question

Keeping a level head and standing firm

Asking the Intelligent Leadership question

the Selfless Leader, Brookes argued that the role of a collective leader is to ask intelligent questions and enable collective others to come up with innovative solutions. In a detailed study of the anatomy of marketing leaders, one of the vital practical skills to emerge for a leader is to ask the right questions, listen to the answers and empower your teams to execute your vision with confidence and creativity (Rogers, 2017). In this study, the CEO of Linkedin, Shannon Stubo, said that asking the right questions and using the answers to solve problems is the hallmark of a successful leader.

The introduction to this web portal highlighted the foundation through our six Intelligent Leadership Questions (ILQs), the origins of which have been adaped from classic Latin. Our collective leadership strapline® draws on this provenance:

Cur quomodoque ducere possumus, quo fine?
(Why and how can we lead, to what end)
… Consideranti,
quando et Cum quo et ubi
(…. considering
where, when, and with whom).

Our foundation for collective leadership is what we describe as our Leadership Quomodo (LQ), which we introduce in another section of this e-Chapter shortly and discuss in more detail in a subsequent e-Chapter.

Collective Characteristics versus Individual Traits: Questions of Style

In all cases of collective leadership, it must go without saying that the leadership style must be selfless, where the leader is more concerned with the needs and wishes of others (the collective) than their own needs. Leadership literature abounds with the characteristics of individual leaders. The trait theory approach is the foundation for identifying a wide range of leader characteristics. So, how do selfless factors differ from the individual?

Brookes considered this in 2014, asking the question, “Is selfless leadership an impossible ideal?” (Brookes, 2014). Given that we are innately selfish, he argued that the requirement to lead in the public interest provides a real challenge for all leaders. The condition is particularly relevant as leaders are encouraged to achieve a competitive advantage rather than a collaborative advantage.


Brookes, S. (2014) Is selfless leadership an impossible ideal for public leaders? The International Journal of Leadership in Public Services, 10(4), 200-216.

Rogers, C. (2017) Anatomy of a Leader: The practical skills you need to get to the top [Online]. Marketing Week. Available: [Accessed 24 April 2022 2022].

Sydänmaanlakka, P. 2008. Intelligent Leadership And Creativity: Supporting Creativity Through Intelligent Leadership. Creativity And Innovation Management Integrating Inquiry And Action. Buffalo, New York.

Explore the Anatomy of Collective Leadership

Mapping Collective Leadership Characteristics

In developing the anatomy of collective leadership, our first characteristic must be that of selflessness. From an anatomical perspective, this self-abnegation is likely to emerge from the soul in the form of values-based leadership, leading to a principle-based framework for the practice and processes of collective leadership. Each metaphorical explanation is briefly illustrated and described below. Our Anatomy of Collective Leadership can optionally be explored further through an E-Learning Nugget (15) by clicking on the illustration.

SELFLESSNESS (From the soul):

The collective leader thinks and acts beyond his concerns. She will also empathise with others and will focus on “we “and “us” instead of “I” or “me”. The selfless collective leader will be able to manage his ego and be humble whilst decisive in the face of challenge. In balancing the bigger picture, such leaders will protect and engage the voices from below. She will actively listen to others, look through the eyes of the other’s position, and both enable and empower them to play a role in tackling the leadership challenge. Success for one is success for all, whilst responding to failure is an equal joint endeavour.


The CL promotes all forms of intelligence in making a collective assessment for strategic and tactical action plans to bridge the gap between the vision and the desired outcomes. The Collective Leader is continually looking to the future through wide-open eyes and active listening whilst looking back at the past lessons. She equally values rational and emotional arguments supporting options for action in tackling the present or emerging leadership challenges.


Caring for others is paramount. The Collective Leader recognises that all that we do in our place of work and where it is delivered involves relationships across myriad stakeholders. He uses his knowledge of himself to align with the needs and wishes of others within the organisation and across diverse networks. The leader will ensure that she leads authentically and will value her role in securing trust and belief from those led by her. The CL will proactively seek to align personal values with those of others in creating a collective mission to deliver the collective vision.


Continuing our metaphorical narrative, the collective leader will have broad shoulders and take full responsibility for his role in leading improvement. He will balance this with assigning suitable delegated tasks. The leader will champion mutual accountability across all relevant stakeholders and, as a collective leader, she will encourage network colleagues to take their share of both responsibilities and accountabilities


The Collective Leader is a no-nonsense practical person who can turn one hand to anything in support of the collective vision. He will keep at least one finger on the pulse of collective energy. On the other hand, the leader will point out travel directions to respond to the leadership challenge. She will apply her skills and experience in a not pompous or condescending way. In helping others, collective leaders roll up their sleeves and play an active role in improvement irrespective of their own priorities


Collective leaders are adaptive and will be adept at twisting and turning as the context of the leadership challenges change. The leader will exercise agility whilst carrying the weight of the responsibility for integrated problem-solving. Flexibility and time are often the currencies of collective leadership practice, whether she leads at times of static (little or no change) or dynamic (constant) change and all variations in between. As a collective leader, he will encourage 360° collaboration to improve both human and structural capital and align the development of systems, skills, and behaviours to the collective vision.


Authentic collective leaders ‘walk the talk’ rather than remain silent or, as a pseudo-CL, ‘talk the walk’. As a CL, she will openly practice leadership by doing the right things, in the right way, by and for the right people in the right places and for the right reasons. He will also expect the same of others and lead by example and encourage engagement rather than taking over and controlling. This motivation can only be successful by getting close to others and working with them, not telling them.


Collective leaders will stand firm in the face of presenting evidence but be prepared to step back or step in a different direction as the evidence demands. Fundamental to driving her role as a leader is to be tenacious and persevere when confronted by challenge or conflict. Taking one step back may just result in taking two steps forward towards the goal after the Collective Leader takes a reasoned decision when confronted by risk or adversity. Taking challenges step by step will keep the leader’s followers motivated to follow his lead and the route she has mapped out.

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The Selfless Leader