Lessons and reminders in collaborative leadership

Ellie Hale
6 min readJan 21, 2024
Photo of sunrise over the mountains, about an hour from Malaga

Last week I attended a four-day collaborative leadership retreat in the sunny south of Spain. It marked the first residential training/development retreat I’ve ever been on; an important professional milestone, and especially given it was around cultivating ‘leadership’ skills.

It was a brilliant way to kick off the year. Much gratitude to our governance consultant and steering group member, Jasmine Castledine, for sharing the opportunity! 🙏

I’m going to publish some key reflections in a series of blogs. This is the first…

Who was there?

I’ve followed organisational coaches and facilitators The Hum for a while, admiring their writing and no-nonsense approach to complex, emergent topics. They convened 12 participants from purpose-led organisations across Europe, from large Brussels-based NGO networks to smaller activist groups.

Catalyst was one of the smallest in terms of core team size, youngest in terms of operating years and least complex given we work solely in the UK rather than across multiple countries. A refreshing change of perspective!

So what is ‘collaborative leadership’?

This was the subject of our first full session together. We were all clear what it was not — i.e. the traditional power-over, coercive and top-down style of leadership you might tend to read in more old-school corporate leadership manuals (that’s not to say there aren’t still some salient universal truths about human nature in these, I’m sure there are).

Rich Bartlett, one of the hosts of the retreat, set out some great provocation questions he was chewing on in his blog:

“I guess parts of me have always known that even in the most decentralised movements, there is a role for something like “leadership”. We need people who can imagine the future and mobilise around bold new ideas, people who can take a long-term perspective, take responsibility for the big picture, who can dig into the deepest levels of commitment and do what needs to be done when nobody else is stepping up. These are all “leadership” traits, even though I usually don’t use that terminology.”

I came into the retreat thinking collaborative leadership is predominantly about sharing power and having a belief in — and passion for — the potential of the collective even over each individual within it. Over the course of the four days I was invited to reflect far more on my own personal needs, practices and presence as a collaborative leader, and to see the value of focusing on this from time to time even over the work and potential of the collective as a whole. One flows from a good appreciation of the other.

It’s all about culture and behaviours

We split into groups and discussed that so much of collaborative leadership (as everything) is about culture and behaviours rather than structure and process.

The latter have their place as a sort of safety net, and can help enable and shape good culture — or, more often, get in the way of it if poorly designed or dominantly imposed.

But it’s mostly about how we show up as people, and what values we’re embodying when we do. This personal awareness helps create more and better interpersonal connection; the conditions for collaboration.

Important traits I identified were:

  • Patience — because the popular African proverb ‘if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together’ is absolutely true in my experience. And this is an important trade-off to be mindful of, especially in our productivity-driven culture. Other patience nuggets I’ve read on my African Proverbs app (which I highly recommend downloading for daily doses of perennial wisdom) include ‘patience attracts happiness; it brings near that which is far’ and ‘a patient person never misses a thing’. Good reminders.
‘Patience attracts happiness; it brings near that which is far’ and ‘A patient person never misses a thing’.
  • Boundaries — because taking on too much disempowers others, as well as creating avoidable difficulties for yourself.
  • Clarity in several dimensions: of shared vision, so that multiple people can take that on and run with it (and together work, in a decentralised, self-organising way, towards the Teal Organisation idea of ‘evolutionary purpose’) — no collective project ever succeeded without a shared vision of some sort; of communication, so you can bring people with you and be inclusive; of roles, so you don’t step on each others’ toes and needlessly duplicate; of personal strengths and learning edges, so that you can allocate roles with that awareness; and of priorities, to make best use of everyone’s time.
  • Listening — because, to quote my African Proverbs app again, ‘if you are a leader be like the moon not like the sun’. I really love that one ❤️
African proverb quote reading ‘If you are a leader be like the moon not like the sun’
‘If you are a leader be like the moon not like the sun’
  • Vulnerability and honesty — because vulnerability and honesty (or ‘being real’ as I sometimes call it) enable trust, which is the bedrock of human relationships. Being able to ask for help, admit you don’t know something, give and receive honest feedback, acknowledge and own uncomfortable emotions and triggers or accept you’re overwhelmed and need to hand things back all require a lot of self-awareness and humility. Being so deeply, authentically human is precisely what makes this a different, challenging and ultimately more liberatory way of working and collaborating.
  • Courage, or perhaps cœurage as we used to say in XR — because a love-led strength of conviction is necessary to hold firm to these ways of being. As we discussed in another session, people will project their ideas of leadership (both ‘positive’, e.g. decisive, visionary, and ‘negative’, e.g. dominant, oppressive etc.) onto anyone with real or perceived authority, and it can be hard not to step or slip into the roles others expect of you.
  • Awareness of and compassion for my own (and the group’s) limitations — this was my most helpful meditation throughout last year, following a painful reckoning with one of my deepest fears: mediocrity! I’ve found constant reinforcement of the ‘good enough for now, safe enough to try’ mantra of sociocracy useful to soothe my inner critic and perfectionist.

It was helpful to reflect on which of these I feel more comfortable and practised in, and which less so.

We also explored the concept of ‘leaderfulness’, and how we might create enabling conditions for that in an organisation, so there can be multiple sites of leadership in different ways and levels across a group. The need to both step in and step back, to give others space, responsibility and power, if our own positionality and privilege requires us to do so. The role and risks of charm and charisma — being the person who can inspire and motivate, and leaning into this when there is consent/agreement, while not claiming so much airtime or admiration that it overshadows others’ equally important contributions. And the need to own unpopular decisions when needed, at both collective and individual level.

There were many more but these were the things that stood out!

A display of colourful post-it notes covered with many definitions of ‘collaborative leadership’.

How might we envision this?

We were invited to draw a visualisation of our own collaborative leadership style, then talk it through with a partner. Mine was two bodies in an embrace, representing the traits of reciprocal holding and being held; shared strength, support, love, acceptance, connection; and the mutual exchange, shaping and appreciation that feel centrally important to how I want to work and live. It felt instinctively important to have the body as the site for embodying and communicating these things, and for that to be done relationally.

My sketch of two bodies embracing, surrounded by vibrations and stars.

My partner’s was a landscape with mountains on the horizon, and sparkling opportunities for joy along the long, winding, challenging road towards it.

It’s so interesting how our different perceptions reflect so much of ourselves and what we hold most dear. Of course there’s no single ‘right’ depiction, and it was a helpful exercise to connect with a different part of our inner knowing.

Next up…

In the next post I’ll explore how The Hum facilitation team modelled collaborative leadership.

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Ellie Hale

Connecting & nurturing relationships, communities and networks at Catalyst (currently incubated by CAST). Co-organiser of several tech for good meetups.