The Best Leaders Are Collaborators

There are probably hundreds of definitions of leadership. However, at its essence, leadership is influencing others to accomplish results. Leadership is not so much about what you do and accomplish on your own. It is about what you are able to help others accomplish. It is about how you are able to influence other people to raise their level of performance to new and better heights and contribute more than they previously thought possible.

In 1978 a biographer by the name of James McGregor Burns wrote a book entitled Leadership, in which he described the lives of people he felt were world class leaders—Ghandi, Mao, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Stalin and Hitler. A major conclusion of the book is his differentiation between two types of leaders, whom he called “Power-Wielders” and “Transformational Leaders.” The criterion Burns used to make this distinction was the leader’s concern for the wants and needs of their followers.

According to Burns, power-wielders impose external control on their followers. These are leaders who view their own ends as more important than those of others. In fact, they see others as objects who are either desirable because they are instrumental in helping them gain what they want, or as undesirable because they hinder them or interfere with what they want. Although these leaders are able to accomplish results in the short-run, they do so at a high price. At best their tactics result in unthinking followers who learn to keep their heads down and do the minimum possible to avoid getting into trouble. At worst they create an environment of smoldering ill-will or even malicious compliance.

Transformational leaders, on the other hand, care about the needs and interests of their followers as well as their own. They create an environment that elicits motivation and commitment. They view people as capable human beings with their own needs, feelings and opinions. They seek mutually beneficial goals and raise their followers to higher levels of motivation, behavior and even morality. These leaders, according to Burns, judge their effectiveness not by their press clippings but by actual social change or the transformation of individual and organizational attitudes and behavior.

Expanding on Burn’s theme, I want to introduce a two dimensional model of leadership behavior. I call the vertical dimension assertiveness which has to do with concern for self in a business situation. People who are high on assertiveness put their ideas forward and influence the way others think and behave. They like to “take charge” and move other people into action. They are concerned with results—getting things done and making things happen. People low on the assertiveness dimension are less concerned with taking charge and seeking their own outcomes. They are more passive, easy going, and reluctant to make their views known. They will allow others to take the lead and will let things happen rather than trying to make them happen.

I call the horizontal dimension empathy which has to do with concern for others and making sure their needs are met. People who are high on this dimension are sensitive to the needs, opinions and feelings of other people. They show high levels of respect and even goodwill and affection towards others. They are open-minded, optimistic about other’s motives and capability, and willing to be influenced by them. Those who are low on this dimension are more self-centered rather than other-centered. They are less aware or responsive to other people’s ideas, feelings or needs and are skeptical about other’s motives and/or abilities.

By combining these two dimensions we come up with four styles of leadership: dominate, avoid, accommodate, and collaborate. Of course, leaders can fall anywhere along either dimension of the model and so not every one is a “pure” or extreme type. However, everyone can be characterized as having natural tendencies in one or another of the quadrants. The chart below illustrates the differences between these four styles of leadership.

Four Styles of Leadership

Dominators (Quadrant 1 leaders) are people who lead through command and control. They tell others what to do and expect them to do it. Because they are low on the empathy scale, they don’t care about what others think or how they respond. They simply want results. They like to run the show with little help or advice from others. They make their own decisions and tend to micro-manage. These leaders use external rewards and threats of punishment to motivate. “If you do what I want, I’ll take care of you.” “If you don’t do what I want, I’ll make trouble for you.” They are concerned about results and more concerned with ends than means. They are “can do” people who have high expectations for themselves and others and know how to get things done.

Avoiders (Quadrant 2 leaders) are low on both dimensions of assertiveness and empathy. They preserve the status quo, keep a low profile and stay out of trouble. They play it safe by postponing decisions and avoiding conflict. They rarely initiate change but will be loyal and carry out decisions that others (boss) have made. Avoiders may be good technically but they provide little direction to others. They stick with proven methods and avoid risks. Employees of these people get very little reinforcement and are unlikely to have a great deal of interaction with their boss.

Accommodators (Quadrant 3 leaders) like to keep people happy and maintain high morale. They treat people with warmth and friendship believing that building positive relationships is the best way to motivate people and keep productivity high. They are generally easy going and overlook mistakes. They have a difficult time setting up structure and accountability, preferring to let people figure out for themselves how to do their jobs. These leaders are quick with praise and have a difficult time addressing problems. They tend to be sociable and may spend time chatting about topics other than work.

Collaborators (Quadrant 4 leaders) are high on both assertiveness and empathy. They have high expectations, set goals, and expect results. They can be perceived by others as demanding and yet seek to involve other people in making decisions and solving problems rather than going it alone. These leaders recognize their own authority and don’t let pleasing others override their opinions. They are more optimistic about people’s capabilities and motives than dominators and so, after providing direction, allow them autonomy and self-governance. They deliberately coach and develop their people. They are willing to have difficult conversations when performance falls short or differences of opinion exist, but they do so seeking win-win outcomes rather than imposing their own will on others.

An example of a Quadrant 4 leader is Mike Krzyrewski, coach of the Duke Bluedevils basketball team. Krzyrewski was an unknown when he came to coach Duke University in Durham, North Carolina in 1980. He had been an assistant coach under Bobby Knight and a head coach at West Point. But no one knew him at Duke. In his first years, he suffered some humiliating defeats and by the end of his third year, he was booed in his own gym.

On March 11th of that year, he suffered the worst defeat in school history and lost a game by a score of 109 to 66. His overall win/loss record was 38 and 47. When someone recommended that he recruit new players, he responded, “Absolutely not.” He said, “Losing doesn’t make you a loser unless you think you are.” He wrote the names of 5 players, including 4 freshmen, that would play on the team the next year.

Coach “K” as he is affectionately known is the winningest active coach in the nation. His record (end of 2007 season) is 803-267 (.750 average). He’s averaged 25 wins per season throughout his career. Sixty one of his sixty five players four-year players have gone to a final four during his tenure and he’s won three NCAA titles. During the March playoffs in 2005, Krzyrewski appeared in a television ad sponsored by the NCAA. He made the point that he was more than a coach of basketball. His primary job was to develop his players into capable young men.

Like Coach Krzyrewski, the best leaders are Collaborators. They set high standards and press people to achieve outstanding results, and yet they make positive assumptions about people and believe that developing them is one of their most important leadership tasks. For some these two dimensions of leadership come naturally. However, most of us need to remember that both dimensions are important. As we do, we’ll expand our reach, influencing more and more people to achieve the best results of which they are capable.

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  1. This is a very important topic. Developing young professionals, both in their chosen fields, as well as leadership fundamentals is vital for the their future, the future of the organization, and the future of corporate America. The first five years of one’s career are the most formidable and formative. We have to nurture and care for their fundamental knowledge. Very good post.

  2. Thank you! I find this piece very helpful since I am uncomfortable with the prevalent perception that leadership is synonymous with assertiveness. A high “Concern for getting things done” (which I equate to ‘Commitment’), is far easier to characterise alongside ‘High Cooperation’ in a Collaborative relationship than trying to imagine high cooperation sitting well with high assertiveness. The latter encourages contrary assertive behaviours at the same time as those which are aligned and congruent.
    The Thomas Killman ‘Conflict resolution model’ implies collaboration, as a ‘win/win’ scenario, can exist, but this begs the question whether a real conflict ever existed! If Collaboration is presented as a win/win 100% alignment then where did the ‘conflicting’ initial non-alignment go to? In other words if the initial positions reflect divergent means or ends then to achieve a win-win suggests both can be achieved – if both are ending up in the same place they both want then arguably there was never a conflict in the first place!

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