Facilitation for Collective Leadership

Thought Piece Mini-Series – Part 1


For a long time we have struggled to articulate the process of facilitation that we believe to be important when working with collective leadership groups tackling complex issues. This art of facilitation doesn’t just lie with those who have a title of ‘facilitator’ but is also key to leadership practice.  Over the next few months we will be sharing experiences and thinking around facilitation in complexity, with the view that we can tentatively make the “intuitive, tacit and unconscious” ways of knowing more visible.  

It is challenging to write about the capabilities and practical experiences of facilitation that have “largely disappeared into our relatively inaccessible mental filing cabinets of intuitive, unconscious tacit knowing!” (Wadsworth, 2001, p421)

We find ourselves drawn to this challenge of trying to articulate what we mean by facilitating in complexity, not by creating a neat list of competencies but by offering our insights, experiences and  reflections developed over several years of working with collective leadership groups. Hopefully by sharing these we can begin to surface the unconscious and make the knowing visible.

This is the beginning of a journey, exploring what we refer to as inquiry-based facilitation, holding a space for discovery and surfacing questions and actions that arise when tackling complex issues as part of a collective group.  It’s not a linear, neat path, but a journey through the knowledge and  experiences developed  initially through our  training and work as social workers and educators, where understanding self in relation to others and complex systems are fundamentals for engagement. In the past five years we have worked with many at the forefront of facilitating in complexity honing our craft from those who graciously gave their time and expertise to the Pioneering Collaborative Leadership offer . (Bland, 2017).  This is where first took ‘deep dives’ and ‘worked aloud’  into the process of creating an open inquiry space for collaborative thinking, recognising the unarticulated value of the facilitator.    We developed rich partnerships with those at the forefront of relational work and action inquiry  to develop a four day residential leadership and facilitation programme. Over the past few years this programme has continued to evolve as we learn both from the writings of others and from our experiences and reflections in practice. 

Why do we need facilitation that is about inquiry? 

The complexity of the challenges we face today has given rise to a rethinking and a potential reimagining of how we structure our society and address complex issues with an inquiring and open mind. If you scan the news and social media, you will see a burgeoning of questions : 

  • how do we build back (forward) better? 
  • how can we work differently to balance home schooling and work needs? 
  • what will a future economy look like?
  • How can we tackle the enduring poverty, inequalities and climate breakdown?

Even before the pandemic these complex issues required a different response from leaders: ours and other’s view was that this was a collective leadership approach to bring about transformational changes where answers emerge from collective sense-making and enacting leadership together. 

From our experience of supporting collective leadership groups tackling complex issues, we know this type of leadership requires self-awareness, the ability to suspend judgement, to embrace working in uncertainty and unknowing and to surface and work with diverse perspectives. We were finding the need for leadership with an emphasis on the health of the whole system rather than individual leaders in organisations or sectors, and where the focus is on building relationships through deep listening and learning through taking action and reflecting.  

We have recognised and appreciated that this is challenging work, requiring skilled support and new ways of learning to do this well. From our experience, one of the keys  to shifting to this way of working is to

a) provide skilful facilitation embedded with groups of leaders who are seeking to bring about change in real, specific, complex challenges,

and b) to work alongside leaders to develop the relational and inquiry skills needed to work transformationally across the system.  

So what is it that facilitators  and leaders do, if it’s not the methods, tools or techniques?

Research indicates that in working with the complexity of collective leadership groups, facilitation is not so much about methods, tools or techniques, but the level of conscious awareness that enables facilitators to be flexible and stable whilst working with the complexity of groups working at the edge of chaos (Reason and Goodwin, 1999). The connection between what is being experienced at an individual and a wider systemic level is acknowledged by Senge et al (2015, p3), where he asserts that “problems ‘out there’ are ‘in here’ also” and Schein (2013, p10) “everything that you do in a system is an intervention…and everything you experience is data about the system.” In addition, Ringer (1999) brings attention to the vital role for facilitators in creating a safe container for the group by tuning into the conscious and unconscious processes of all members, whilst also recognising their own tide of emotions. 

A different kind of leadership Development

When we think about leadership development (and there is a lot of it) we tend to imagine leaders undergoing an individual programme and applying their learning to this in their work situations. Nothing wrong with that, and many leaders will cite particular programmes as life changing events. The difficulty arises when we focus on tackling complex issues that cross organisational and sectoral boundaries.  This requires a different, collective leadership, where the learning and development takes place within the real-life work of the group. It’s challenging work, and our experience, and research has highlighted that there is a significant gap in those who are skilled in creating a space for inquiry, action and learning in the moment (Bland, 2017).  

Over the past few years, we have crafted an intense residential experience aimed at developing the facilitation capacity of those holding spaces for collective leadership work.  Although, initially we have focussed on those who could be regarded as facilitators of groups, our focus has moved to include those with a leadership practice that recognise the centrality of developing their relational and inquiry skills. 

Along with a number of writers and theorists, we recognise that it is the self-awareness of the facilitator or leader and the interpersonal relationship between them and the group, that it paramount to creating the conditions for change. Hunter, Bailey and Taylor (1995) express the view that the effectiveness of the facilitator or leader is determined by “who you are and who you are being with the group you’re working with ….the relationship you develop with the group is key”.  Likewise, Hogan (2002) articulates the importance of relationships and the need to be fully present and authentic with group members. Ghais (2005, p14) also argues that no amount of brilliant skills and techniques will help an emerging facilitator if s/he lacks personal awareness: “whether you are aware of it or not, our inner states, moods, attitudes, and thoughts are always on our sleeves”.  

The emphasis is therefore on developing deep curiosity and an inquiring stance about self and others, and the interdependent nature of complex issues, rather than seeing facilitation or leadership as a set of techniques.  This includes, how to develop the ability to hold a space where complexity can be explored safely and imaginatively.

At the heart of the programme is a  conscious interweaving  of action inquiry, mindfulness , cooperative learning and systems thinking, enabling participants to explore through 1st, 2nd, 3rd person inquiry : a deeper understanding of self (self-awareness) ; self  in relation to others in a group; and our interactions between members of the groups and the wider system.  

We  developed the programme, with experts in relational work (Allison Trimble, from The King’s Fund) and action research (Cathy Sharp, from Research for Real) and have continued to evolve and develop it drawing from the rich diverse research that arises from our experiences as leaders and facilitators, and the substantial body of facilitation literature that raises the importance of the facilitator role in participatory practices and establishing groups as learning communities (Heron, 1992; Manley & McCormack, 2003; Meyer, 1999; Raelin, 2011; Torbert & Taylor, 2007; Wadsworth, 2001; Wardale, 2008; et al.; Webster & Dewing, 2007). 

In future pieces of writing we will continue to explore what it means to facilitate in complexity but  for now we finish where we started with acknowledgment of  Wadsworth’s (2001) work on key facilitation capabilities and its relevance to  our work: knowing self, knowing others; realising interconnectedness; identifying new growth and driving energies; resourcing the effort; shaping the inquiry and accompanying the transformative moments.

These are key components of the Collective Leadership Facilitation Programme. If you are interested in finding out more about the programm, please follow the link below:


BLAND, N., 2017. Pioneering Collaborative Leadership: A Facilitated Approach to Learning in Action. Edinburgh: What Works Scotland (University of Edinburgh). 

CHAPMAN, C.D., 2017. What Works In Public Service Leadership: Exploring the Potential. Glasgow University: What Works Scotland. 

HERON, J., 1992. Feeling and Personhood: Psychology in another key. London: Sage. 

HOGAN, C.F., 2002. Understanding facilitation: Theory and principles. {2} edn. London: Koga Page. 

HUNTER, D., BAILEY, A., & TAYLOR, B., 1995. The Art of Facilitation: How to create group synergy. Cambridge MA: Fisher Books. 

HUNTER, J. and MCCORMICK, D.,W., 2008.  
Mindfulness in the Workplace: An Exploratory Study, 2008, pp. 1-33. 

MANLEY, K. and MCCORMACK, B., 2003. Practice development: purpose, methodology, facilitation and evaluation. Nursing In Critical Care, 8(1), pp. 22-29. 

MEYER, J., 1999. Using qualitative methods in health related research. In: C. POPE and N. MAYS, eds, Qualitative Research in Health Care. pp. 59-74. 

RAELIN, J., 2011. From leadership-as-practice to leaderful practice. Leadership, 7(2), pp. 195-211. 

REASON,P., GOODWIN,B., 1999. Toward a Science of Qualities in Organizations: Lessons from Complexity Theory and Postmodern Biology. Concepts and Transformation, 4(3), pp. 281-317. 

RINGER, M., 1999. Australian Journal of Outdoor Education, 4(1),. 

SENGE, P., HAMILTON, H. and KANIA, J., 2015. The Dawn of System Leadership. Stanford Social Innovation Review, (Winter), pp. 27-33. 

SHARP, C., 2018. Collective Leadership: Where nothing is clear and everything keeps changing. Edinburgh: Workforce Scotland. 

Torbert & Taylor, 2007. Action Inquiry: Interweaving Multiple Qualities of Attention for Timely Action. [online]

WADSWORTH, Y., 2001. The mirror, the magnifying glass, the compass and the map: facilitating participatory action research. In: P. REASON and H. BRADBURY, eds, Handbook of Action Research. London: Sage, pp. 420-432. 

WARDALE, D., 2008. A Proposed Model for Effective Facilitation. Group Facilitation, (9), pp. 49-58. WEBSTER, J. and DEWING, J., 2007. Growing a Practice Development strategy for Community Hospitals. Practice Development in Health Care, 6(2), pp. 97-106.

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