How to create an environment for collective leadership to thrive

Global trends in leadership development identify collective leadership as the most prominent trend in leadership development. The reasoning is that, instead of developing people, organisations should develop an environment where leadership can thrive. Leadership is no longer individual but rather spread through a network. It exists across levels and between units in a culture of knowledge sharing. Leaders can leave organisations, but their leadership stays behind.
What does this environment look like?
One could identify five aspects of collective leadership (see Cassandra O’Neill and Monica Brinkerhoff):

  1. It sees organisations not as machines, but as interconnected systems;
  2. It is not served by a hierarchical structure, but by a flatter, interconnected network of relationships;
  3. The decision-making function in a collective leadership is not top-down but shared and/or rotated between people;
  4. In a collective leadership people do not need to be told what to do because they are inherently capable and trustworthy to do what is right and needed;
  5. Success is not the outcome of the talent and skill of one, but rather of the diverse perspectives and skills of many (for more aspects of collective leadership also see and

To create such an environment is not the job of a hero but of a host. Leadership is enabled through the facilitation of atmosphere, environment and structure, not of the lone ranger or diva at the top telling others what to do. To me, this sounds a lot like the difference between show biz, which is based on the rising of a star, and the performances possible through improvisation and collaboration.
Improvisation principles, then, become intrinsically necessary for the cultivation of collective leadership, principles like how to listen and respond, how to give and take control, how to say yes to an idea and build on it with your own creativity, how to make each other look good, how to respond fresh to each new context and how to make in-action decisions based on a shared vision. In improvising, too, people learn to leverage diverse ideas and collaborate across difference.
Yet, improvisational interaction also requires the creation of an environment that is conducive to such interaction. One cannot just improvise without context, trust and a sense of safety that one can take calculated risks.
Therefore, improvisation and collective leadership also have in common the need to understand how to create an environment for collaboration and the taking of creative initiative. We therefore provide here the five kinds of safety needed, not only for improvisers to interact with each other in a way that builds story and creativity, but also by organisations that want to enable collective leadership. Collective leadership can, we argue, only thrive in an environment where people feel safe to take the initiative required for them to creatively solve problems, engage with each other and move an organisation forward towards fulfilling its purpose.

  1. Physical safety: People need to feel safe in physical spaces that are cared for, where there are no broken lights, inadequate airflow, electrical faults or lack of access to resources. This may seem obvious, but lack of infrastructure and resources, or just a perceived lack, can greatly influence the willingness of people to share leadership.
  2. Metaphorical safety: This is the kind of safety derived from a sense that a space is tolerant and free of prejudice. My ideas and contributions are valued and I will not be singled out for failure to meet some unspoken standard. Fairness and trust play a big role in this kind of safety.
  3. Safety derived from the familiar. One feels safe in a space that is well-known. In a world that changes drastically and where organisations must in turn respond, there is a great need for people to create safety in the familiar. This could be familiar people, surroundings, values or processes. An organisation must therefore take care to introduce and make known as much of its new ideas as early as possible and let people take part in changes from early on so that they may feel safe with the organisation as it becomes familiar.
  4. Safety to risk. When people feel safe, they feel able to take creative risks and venture into the unknown. Finding a way to balance the known and the unknown becomes an important aspect of creating an environment for collective leadership to thrive.
  5. Safety in repetition. There is a safety in the knowledge that tomorrow I can come back and take another risk, try again to solve something that has not yet been successful. In this sense there is a way in which organisations must look at failure not as a problem, but as an offer of opportunity to learn and improve – an offer to try again.
  6. Finally, there is the need for safety from consequences. In this sense the idea is that there should be plenty of opportunity for people to take small risks in controlled environments. This relates to on the job training and iterative projects where change may be constant but small and incremental.

The above principles are derived not from organisational development theory and practice, but from play theory and practice related to how to create what is called a ‘temenos’ – a play space or sacred space where people are ‘set apart together’ (set apart from the everyday, but together as a team) for the purpose of achieving a shared goal in the context of a game or ritual. This definition of a play space sounds a lot like an organisational space where people create an organisation for the accomplishment of a particular purpose, following certain values and policies in a building or place set apart for their collective endeavour.
We acknowledge that not all aspects of an organisation can always be managed according to the above principles. Yet, it might be possible in any organisation to create pockets of possibility where such opportunities for improvisational, collective and innovative interaction can be achieved. In such pockets of possibility, skills for collective leadership can be practised and honed for application in the larger organisational system.
Anyone interested to understand more about collective leadership and its relationship to improvisation can contact us at You may also choose to join our Applied Improvisation Network Africa jam, details are below.

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