Are you prepared for this moment in time?
Our increasingly interconnected and complex world has reached a critical moment in time. Technological innovation and environmental and socio-political threats are converging to present us with unprecedented opportunities and daunting challenges.
Prevailing modes of leadership have led to this moment. But they will not lead us to the future we need for our organizations and our world. Moreover, many leaders, even those working toward positive change, are bogged down by challenges including:
- Overwhelming complexity – Disrupts progress and causes missed opportunities.
- Resistance and conflict – Undermines change and reduces impact.
- Pervasive firefighting – Wastes resources and distracts from important priorities.
To move toward the future we need we must transform every industry, organization, and community.
This calls us to recreate leadership to harness collective intelligence and mobilize the collective potential of everyone involved. We call this “Leading for Cooperative Advantage.”
This type of leadership builds on the theme of our book, Flourishing Enterprise. It is also supported by scientific research and practical insights.
Leading for Cooperative Advantage
“Leading for Cooperative Advantage” amplifies the positive impact of people, organizations, and their systems of stakeholders. It is built from two guiding principles and four enabling practices:
These guiding principles provide the rationale and frame for a type of leadership that coherently integrates strategy, innovation, and impact within leadership suited to today’s complex and uncertain world.
- Cooperative Advantage – Provides the strategic rationale and frame to generate superior performance for your organization and our world. It calls for harnessing potent cooperation among people throughout your organization and systems of stakeholders.
- Leadership Leverage – Provides the rationale and frame to shift from directive leadership to engaged leadership that advances and exploits the collective leadership capacity and agency of everyone involved.
These enabling practices help bring intentions to fruition.
- Clarity and Focus: Leaders engage everyone involved to continuously refine intent, reveal interdependencies, and enhance shared understanding, clarity, and focus.
- Potent Cooperation: Participants with the right diverse skills establish shared intentions and integrate differences to develop new understandings, new ideas, and unified action for maximum effectiveness.
- Compound Learning: Leaders strengthen their cooperative competencies and advance a culture of prevention, responsiveness, and continuous growth. Groups practice potent cooperation as they work together.
- Leadership Cycle: Leaders and participants work together through each step of a cyclic leadership process that includes and integrates all necessary elements.
Principle 1 – Cooperative Advantage
Cooperative Advantage is the strategic foundation of Recreating Leadership and is particularly suited to complex, interconnected, and dynamic contexts. It draws upon three strategic theories: resource dependence, dynamic capabilities, and stakeholder theory.
Cooperative Advantage calls for potent cooperation among people throughout an organization, its partners, and systems of stakeholders to build key capabilities, innovate, execute, and dynamically adapt together.
Through this, they skillfully manage threats, seize opportunities, and grow the “pie” of opportunity and mutual benefits.
This is in sharp contrast to Competitive Advantage, today’s prevailing strategic logic. Competitive Advantage was developed for a less complex and more stable era. It prioritizes competing with competitors and stakeholders to capture a larger share of a “fixed” pie. Competitive Advantage has roots in Industrial Economics and its underlying assumptions do not reflect today’s complex and dynamic world.
Principle 2 – Leadership Leverage
Leadership Leverage is the leadership foundation of Recreating Leadership. It is particularly suited to complex, interconnected, and dynamic contexts that demand the collective efforts of all participants.
Leadership leverage is anchored in the realization that leadership is fundamentally about setting direction and achieving results through the collective efforts of everyone involved. It includes caring for the activities to be accomplished and the people who do them.
Leadership leverage requires the active participation of people throughout an organization and its systems of stakeholders. People fully exercise their agency, competence, and organizational perspectives. They do this through a dynamic dance, where they engage each other as human beings and exercise their influence across multiple circles of care.
A Dynamic Dance
Leadership is truly leveraged when people deliver results through a dynamic dance of leading, following, and unifying:
- Leading: enacting formal and informal activities to care for the whole and advance a desired result.
- Following: executing tasks while reciprocally influencing.
- Unifying: integrating diverse and conflicting perspectives into innovative solutions and unified action.
In this dance, both leaders and followers adapt and shift roles to suit each situation.
Leadership leverage calls for a shift from treating people as “human resources” to engaging them as “human beings.” Leaders see and honor each person’s unique qualities and interests. When people are seen, valued, and have opportunities to shine, they are happier, perform better, and bring forth their latent potential.
Circles of Care
Leadership leverage applies across several circles of care: Self, Group, Organization, and System. Effective leadership goes beyond individual actions and extends its influence across interrelated circles to foster community, broader impact, and stronger results.
“Leadership is lifting a person’s vision to higher sights, raising performance to a higher standard, building personality beyond its normal limitations. Your first and foremost job as a leader is to take charge of your own energy and then help orchestrate the energy of those around you.”
– Peter Drucker
- Self: As Peter Drucker suggests, effective leaders begin with themselves. Self-leadership begins with self-awareness, personal growth, a deep sense of responsibility, and self-compassion for not being perfect. Self-leaders develop the essential skills, values, and mindsets to lead effectively and serve as an example for others to follow.
- Groups: Groups, including units, functions, project teams, and partnerships, thrive under effective group leadership. Effective group leaders foster a sense of community and positive team dynamics, empower group members, encourage collaboration, and support sound decision-making.
- Organizations: Organizations operate at their best when everyone’s efforts are aligned, integrated, and unified. Organizational leaders care deeply and coordinate people, groups, and processes within and beyond the organization to ensure synergy, effectiveness, and positive impact.
- Systems: To effectively address complex challenges and opportunities leaders must actively involve systems of interconnected stakeholders. System leaders care for the whole and coordinate and harmonize webs of people, groups, organizations, and processes to foster innovation and unified action and generate beneficial outcomes.
Practice 1 – Clarity and Focus
Clarity and focus include knowing the current situation, having a clear intention, and knowing what to do next. Clarity begins with sensing the situation, context, and system of stakeholders. In complex situations, leaders no longer can have all the answers. However, they need to know where they are unclear or biased. And they know who to engage and what actions are needed to become clear. Leaders can only sense with accuracy if their mental and emotional perceptions are unbiased. This requires that our nervous system is calm and clear. When we are reactive or triggered we know that we are biased.
Clarity and focus include the following elements:
- Developing the right inner “instrument,” that includes a calm and clear nervous system;
- Accessing insight into complex situations and clarity about how to proceed;
- Strengthening individual and collective abilities to be calm, attentive, alert, discerning, aware of cognitive and emotional biases, and aware of protective behaviors;
- Exercising abilities to sense signals, understand context, identify interdependencies, recognize meaningful patterns, select the right methods, and develop insight.
Clarity and focus also include matching the analytical method to the situation. Methods suited to complicated challenges, such as designing a bridge, can be solved using appropriate detailed analysis. However, no amount of detailed analysis will solve complex problems. Such problems have unknown unknowns and no single right answers. Such complex problems, benefit from:
- Mapping and modeling the system to better understand its scope and interdependencies;
- Developing simple rules;
- Engaging the system of stakeholders;
- Experimenting and moving iteratively forward.
Groups, organizations, and stakeholder systems can develop and continually refine their clarity and focus using cooperative processes for setting direction such as the leadership cycle introduced later. Such processes combine the collective intelligence of participants with structured fact-finding and analysis.
Practice 2 – Potent Cooperation
Potent cooperation is core to realizing the strategic promise of Cooperative Advantage and Leadership Leverage. A prerequisite for potent cooperation is a cooperative mindset. With such a mindset people believe in the generative benefits of collective sensing, coordinated action, and co-creation. They also are committed to becoming an exemplary example of potent cooperation.
Potent Cooperation is important because performance requires the coordinated efforts of many people. Too little or poor cooperation, fragments efforts, causes missed opportunities, and results in people working at odds with one another. Potent cooperation is fostered by emotional climates that include care, open curiosity, and appreciation.
Potent Cooperation should be exercised where and how it is needed within and across groups, organizations, and systems. Potent Cooperation begins with suitable framing and the right participants who are best for the context. Through Potent Cooperation participants connect, coordinate, and co-create together to deliver outstanding results.
Potent cooperation requires that we listen and see each other accurately. We cultivate an emotional climate suitable for Potent Cooperation when we are open, curious, and creative. One barrier to Potent Cooperation is being distracted and not fully present. In such situations, we miss a lot of important information and may react to what we expect will happen rather than to what is happening. Another barrier is an emotional climate of separation, anxiety, anger, and judgment. In such situations, people become polarized and overly reactive. This undermines trust, connection, and cooperation.
Potent Cooperation is fostered through the four key enablers depicted below.
Potent Cooperation begins with each person taking charge of their own energy. We call this center. From a place of center, people are attuned to their physical, emotional, and mental states. They align with their highest intention and have the inner space and presence to connect with others.
Connect is the second element of Potent Cooperation. When we connect, we relate to others from our center, with care, and without mental or emotional bias. We are attuned to one another such that our nervous systems are in sync. At our best, we feel like we are in a flow with ourselves and others. As things come up, rather than react, we have the inner “space” to respond appropriately to the situation.
Coordinate is the third element of Potent Cooperation. Coordinate builds from and includes Center and Connect. When we Coordinate, we work together to orchestrate activities and people for excellence and consequence. We pay attention to both tangible activities and intangibles such as emotions and shared climate). Managing intangibles is key to engendering our own and each other’s full human potential. This requires nervous system coherence and attunement. We can achieve this as we center, connect, resonate with each other, and cultivate a mental state of flow together.
Co-create builds upon and includes Center, Connect, and Coordinate. A group of participants innovate together with insight, synergy, and unified action.
A powerful Co-create example is Walmart’s use of co-creative business planning to develop and launch its initial sustainability program. Walmart launched 12 co-creative teams each focused on a specific sustainability topic (such as buildings, fleet, and packaging). Each team learned what sustainability leaders were doing and developed two business plans that could deliver both sustainability and business impact. The first was a “compete” plan. This required doing a little bit better than others. The second plan called “swimming upstream” called for breakthrough innovation. Each team included Walmart associates, suppliers, relevant outside experts, and innovators. Each team framed their task, learning and expanding possibilities, co-creating, choosing, and refining. There was also an intensive effort to project business, financial, and sustainability benefits. The teams reported back to the executive committee and all plans were approved by the board. From this foundation, Walmart’s sustainability efforts were launched.
Practice 3 – Compound Learning
Compound Learning includes mastering the key elements of Potent Cooperation and applying them within and across relevant spheres of influence (self, groups, organizations, and systems). As people increase their proficiency in these competencies they enhance their ability to lead, follow, and unify effectively. By continuously developing and honing these skills, people unlock the compounding effects that propel them toward increasing levels of leadership excellence, potent cooperation, and world-class performance.
In their efforts to foster superior development, leaders can find inspiration from sports and the performing arts. They can cultivate a growth mindset, practice deliberately, and put themselves in increasingly challenging situations. In the workplace, leaders can enhance their competence by embracing the challenges presented by increasingly complex and chaotic circumstances. This includes the ability to connect with diverse individuals and groups, coordinate efforts across various functions and entities, and co-create innovative solutions in the face of adversity.
Leaders and their teams fuel a cycle of improvement that drives them toward exceptional performance by practicing together and continuously refining their cooperative competencies. This iterative cycle of deliberate practice strengthens their capacity to adapt, collaborate, and navigate through dynamic environments. As leaders become more proficient in centering, connecting, coordinating, and co-creating, they unlock the potential for transformative impact and foster a culture of cooperative advantage within their organizations and stakeholder systems.
Most people regard meetings as a significant waste of time. However, meetings can be very valuable when participants practice centering, connecting, coordinating, and co-creating together with excellence. An easy way to ensure learning is to ask each participant to reflect on their own participation and grade it from 1 to 10. For any grade below 10, the participant identifies one thing they might do differently next time. From this practice, I have learned that most people are very perceptive regarding when and how they are not performing at their best. I have also learned that when this becomes an expected practice, people tend to interact with more moment-to-moment self-awareness and they improve their performance and contribution to the group.
Practice 4 – Leadership Cycle
The Leadership Cycle, depicted below, is a practical practice to help you recreate leadership and amplify the positive impact of people within and across an organization and its systems of stakeholders. The cycle depicts deliberate and/or implicit activities that leaders enact.
When the activities within this tool are performed with proper deliberation they help leaders integrate the two guiding principles: 1. Cooperative Advantage and 2. Leadership Leverage and the first three Enabling Practices: 1. Clarity and Focus, 2. Potent Cooperation, and 3. Compound Learning.
The leadership cycle can be used collaboratively. It can be used iteratively to establish clarity and focus, monitor progress, and adapt and change. The leadership cycle dialog begins at the central hub to establish clear intentions and identify desired behaviors. The dialogue encourages diverse perspectives on each element (e,g, understanding context, analyzing stakeholder systems, and setting direction). It fosters meaningful discussion and insight regarding the interplay among elements and future implications. The leadership cycle is also used to envision and design required activities, track performance, adapt to change, and ensure ongoing effectiveness.
During in-person working sessions, a template of the cycle is displayed on a poster board. Participants provide input and ideas on sticky notes and place them on the various sections of the template. For online working sessions, collaborative whiteboard tools such as Miro can be used to capture ideas from the dialog.
Walmart’s co-creative business planning was implemented through a leadership cycle such as the one depicted above. For the example of buildings the sustainability plan extended over multiple years and included new facilities as well as retrofits. It required the engagement of many people within and outside of Walmart. Each step of the way there was a need to build new capabilities, further innovate, execute, evaluate, learn, and adjust appropriately.
Recreating Leadership for Cooperative Advantage is for purposeful leaders committed to creating meaningful change. It is for leaders who strive for excellence and are ready to take their next step as a leader. It reframes strategy and leadership and leverages potent cooperation to better face the biggest opportunities and most daunting challenges of our time. If you are such a leader, you too can recreate your leadership and realize the benefits of Cooperative Advantage and Leadership Leverage suitable to your situation.