Growing Our 21st Century Collective Leadership Skills

 by Joan O’Donnell

What do we do when we do not know what to do next, but are under pressure to do something? Too often something becomes anything, and anything is something that we have done before.

Photograph of a grey lighthouse in the middle of a storm. There is big white waves crashing up against the lighthouse platform.
Credit to: Photo by Lena Khrupina from Pexels

The pandemic prompted speedy innovation and improvisation: it showed us what we could do under difficult circumstances, and gave many people agency to take action that cut across the usual red tape and hierarchical ways of doing things. The extent to which people took positive social action unconditionally in their communities gives some sense of how we can take meaningful action in the face of deep uncertainty, and how we can do so together.[1] And while we are at our most innovative at the early stages of change, before routine sets in,[2] as we move into the post-Covid recovery period, it can be tempting to seek the solid ground of certainty and business as usual. It is as if an inner pendulum swings between wanting the high dry ground of certainty and wanting to step out into the swamp of uncertainty and engage with real issues on the ground. One approach works with numbers and structures; the other with patterns, and the quality of the interrelationships between different elements of the whole. One calls on our individual tenacity to take action, even if it means ‘doing the wrong thing righter’[3], and the other calls on us to slow down, make space and feel our way forward together.

Traditional management tools do not work well with complex problems. They box and simplify, siloing them into constituent parts, and managing them with discrete programmes, which are often unwittingly pitched against each other.[4]  Social issues are messy, they cannot easily be tucked into the neat boxes of time bound projects that must produce quantifiable impacts in line with budgetary cycles.

Focusing on Covid recovery is a delicate time to pick up the threads of the last two years and move forward. At a time when we most feel like running for high ground, the Illuminating Leadership Festival acts like a beacon, an invitation to step into the swamp of the unknown and grow our capability to take collective action and learn forward together amidst an acknowledgement of the complexity of governing in the 21st century.

The image show the illuminating leadership festival logo. This is a blue and white striped lighthouse, radiating a warm yellow beam of light.
Illuminating Leadership Festival Logo

Too often change initiatives take the form of shifting the furniture around the room, and while structural changes might be needed to get the door fixed, they rarely get to ask the more interesting questions: who is using this space and for what? What ought it be used for? Who needs to be here and is excluded? Why do we need it? What are the unintended consequences of doing things this way?

These are questions we cannot answer alone. The Collective Leadership for Scotland team convene ‘we-spaces’  across different levels of the system, that acknowledge our interconnectedness, our interdependency and the fact that what is needed cannot be found in a Gantt chart or a causal loop diagram. They do this in line with the Strategy for Collective Leadership for Scotland, which creates a clear context and purpose for the work, and is aligned with the National Outcomes for Scotland. The strategy commits to building capacity for collective leadership within complex systems, through creativity and innovation. It includes working out loud, sharing stories and connecting different parts of the system to itself.  

The Illuminating Leadership Festival invites us to lean into a deep sense of our interconnectedness and interdependency, dig deep and connect with each other.  Turning up and allowing others to ‘arise as legitimate others[5] before us and transcend the entanglements that come with job roles and personality in unknown territory is key to unlocking the power of collective leadership.

The festival programme chimes strongly with the UN Inner Development Goals across the domains of being, thinking, relating, collaborating and acting.  If the Sustainable Development Goals are a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all, then the Inner Development Goals give us a clear sense of the kind of inner work all leaders need to engage in.

Being includes a greater sense of embodied authenticity, self-awareness and presence, and developing the mindset of curiosity, willingness to be vulnerable, embrace change and grow. The thinking skills regarded as critical for the future include critical thinking, the capacity to work with complexity and systemic causality and an ability to see patterns, structure the unknown and consciously create stories with a long term orientation. An appreciation for others and the sense of being connected to community is combined with a call for humility that extends to the needs of a situation over self-importance and relating to others with compassion and address suffering. Collaborating requires the skill to really listen to others and foster dialogue, co-creation skills and an ability to embrace diversity, sustain trusting relationships and mobilise others to work towards shared purpose. Together these competencies inspire action infused with courage, optimism and agency to break down old patterns, generate new ideas and act with persistence in the face of uncertainty.

The Scottish Government is really well placed to meet this UN challenge: few countries are resourced with a Collective Leadership Strategy and an experienced team to support it. In fact, having collective leadership festivals to draw out attendees collective capabilities through provocative and enticing offers is unprecedented. Regardless of the various roles and perhaps  conflicting personal and institutional roles you play in the system – tempered radical, activist, muckraker, artist, parent, neighbour, senior public servant or community worker – there is work to be done together. As Geoffrey Vickers, suggests ‘ people without role conflicts would be [people] without roles and [people] without roles would not be [people].[6]’ And the bigger questions that need innovation post-Covid require new thinking that recognises the diversity of roles, and ways of feeling our way forward together.

We are almost a quarter way through the 21st century- the time to step in and illuminate our collective leadership potential is now.

The Illuminating Leadership Festival takes place between 28 February – 3 March. The programme can be accessed here.

Joan O’Donnell is a Doctoral Researcher with the ALL Institute, Maynooth University and ADVANCE CRT scholar, funded by the Science Foundation of Ireland. She is an Associate Lecturer in Systems Thinking in Practice with the Open University, and currently on placement with the Collective Leadership for Scotland team.

This blog has emanated from research supported in part by a Grant from Science Foundation Ireland under Grant number 18/CRT/6222. The opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Science Foundation Ireland.


[1] Kars-Unluoglu, S., Jarvis, C., & Gaggiotti, H. (2022). Unleading during a pandemic: Scrutinising leadership and its impact in a state of exception. Leadership, 174271502110633. doi:10.1177/17427150211063382

[2] Weick, K. E., & Roberts, K. H. (1993). Collective mind in organizations: Heedful interrelating on flight decks. Administrative science quarterly, 357-381.

[3] Ackoff, R.L. (1999) ‘On Passing Through 80’, Systemic practice and action research, 12(4), pp. 425–430. doi:10.1023/A:1022404515140.

[4] OECD (2017), Systems Approaches to Public Sector Challenges: Working with Change, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264279865-en.

[5] Maturana, H. and Bunnell, P. (1999) ‘The Biology of Business: Love Expands Intelligence’, Reflections (Cambridge, Mass.), 1(2), pp. 58–66. doi:10.1162/152417399570179.

[6] Vickers, G. (1973) Making institutions work. London: Associated Business Programmes.

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