Does it seem to you that most business strategies require collaboration, innovation and flexibility? That we all need to learn new ways to think and act — together — if we hope to succeed? If so, you need a more interdependent leadership culture, says CCL’s Charles Palus.

Interdependent leadership is driven by the belief that leadership is a collective activity that requires mutual inquiry and learning. As a result, people in collaborative, interdependent cultures work effectively across organizational boundaries, with openness and candor. They are successful in adapting to rapid changes, drawing on internal expertise and insight, and that of external partners and stakeholders.

So how do you create skillfully interdependent individuals, groups, organizations within even broader societies? Palus, along with CCL’s John McGuire and Chris Ernst, have been working to answer that question. In a just-published chapter in The Handbook for Teaching Leadership from Harvard Business School, they describe four “practical arts” that are essential building blocks for collaborative, interdependent leadership cultures.

1. Dialogue is the use of inquiry and creative conversations to understand and address the challenges that matter most. Dialogue allows us to reflect on unquestioned assumptions and difficult topics, find common ground and come up with multiple solutions. Through the process, people learn to ask more and better questions, pay more careful attention, and explore the perspectives of others.

One approach that usually works well, at least as a starting place, is what CCL calls putting something in the middle. Instead of jumping in to debate a topic or advocate for your point of view, use tangible objects such as photographs, artifacts or prototypes to focus the conversation. First, frame a key question or two based on a shared challenge. Then use the objects to help explore the questions and make shared sense of the challenge.

CCL’s Visual Explorer tool is a collection of images and insights for how to facilitate dialogue, but almost any diverse and interesting photo collection can work. For example, consider the challenge of how to merge two groups, one based in the U.S. and one based in Germany. The focus questions might be:What problems are getting in our way? What do I see as strengths so far between the two groups? Have each person choose one image to represent their reaction to each question. Then, one at a time, team members describe the image and why they chose it. This opens up new perspectives for the group to discuss and build upon.

2. Creating headroom is the process by which senior leaders intentionally practice behaviors on the job that will drive collaboration and interdependence. It’s about senior leaders providing the time and space to think and act differently in ways that “lift up” the entire leadership culture.

Leadership behaviors, like most other habits, tend to be self-reinforcing and difficult to change, so it helps to set up a practice field to allow people to break out of old patterns. A key practice for creating headroom is public learning. Executives and other key players move expressly beyond the rules of the current culture and practice taking risks in groups and public forums. They discuss mistakes, aspirations, flaws and barriers. They ask difficult questions, push back on assumptions, pursue both/and options instead of either/or thinking, and invest in creating the leadership culture that supports the strategy and direction of the organization.

3. Boundary spanning is the art of seeing, bridging and leveraging five types of group boundaries: horizontal, vertical, demographic, geographic and stakeholder. The first step to spanning boundaries, ironically, is to create or strengthen them. By tapping into the power of differentiation (e.g., clarifying roles, purpose, areas of specialization), we build safety and respect within our group and across boundaries. Then, different groups can come together, build trust and achieve a larger purpose. Finally, boundary spanning combines differentiation and integration — creating a “team of teams” with differentiated expertise, experience and resources, yet driven by an integrated vision and strategy — in order to support interdependence, transformation and reinvention.

4. Inside out development focuses on the values, beliefs, identity, emotions, intuition, imagination and leadership mindset of each individual. Inside-out development occurs when individuals “learn to learn” the lessons of their own experiences and begin to internalize those lessons.

A powerful way to develop from the inside-out is through feedback-intensive programs and processes, in which you gain new awareness of your beliefs and behaviors. Another way that connects your lessons of experience to others is storytelling. Storytelling is a remarkably portable and efficient method, quickly adaptable to almost any context. Stories build human connections and personalize “the work.” Inside-out development is extended and deepened as people share experiences, beliefs and values.

“Many challenges can only be solved by groups working collaboratively,” says Palus. “Developing interdependent leadership — and these four arts — is not a side interest for most of our clients. It is a necessary, practical pursuit.”

Learn More:

  • “Developing Interdependent Leadership,” by Charles J. Palus, John B. McGuire and Chris Ernst in The Handbook for Teaching Leadership: Knowing, Doing, and Being (edited by Scott Snook, Nitin Nohria and Rakesh Khurana of Harvard Business School). The chapter elaborates on interdependent leadership cultures, the four arts and strategies for integrating leadership strategy and culture into organizational life.
  • CCL’s Leadership Explorer™ series. Tools for conducting dialogue, creating headroom and addressing leadership culture. Learn how to use the best-selling Visual Explorer, as well as the newer Leadership Metaphor Explorer, Values Explorer and Boundary Explorer at CCL Labs.

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