Collaborative Leadership

August 04, 2015 | Apple Delight
By Pete Simano, M.Ed., Vice President for Leadership Development, NICS/Oasis

Collaborative Leadership

NICS/Oasis Collaborative Leadership

During my 11years in school administrative work I have found much success with leading through a collaborative approach. I wish to share some thoughts with my fellow NICS/Oasis administrators to help them reflect more on their leadership style and to possibly learn some new strategies to be more collaborative in their work.  I was very fortunate to have training in collaboration through C.E.S. (the Coalition of Essential Schools) at Howard Luke Academy, in Fairbanks, AK, during 1997-1999; through mentoring with my supervising principal, Mrs. Marianne Carlson, at West Valley High School in Fairbanks, AK; and through journal and online research. As VP for Leadership Development with NICS/Oasis, I appreciate the opportunity to help train up and mentor others in the benefits of collaboration.

People call this type of leadership "collaborative", "inclusive", and "distributive" . Collaborative leadership goes against the traditional "top-down" model of yesteryear and brings on an inclusive approach with a cohesive leadership team. In NICS/Oasis, we call our school teams "FLT's or Field Leadership Teams", and at the Home Office we have an Executive Leadership Team (of three individuals) and a "Leadership Team" including the Executive Team with the Home Office Department Heads. At all levels, collaboration can foster empowerment, buy-in, and accountability.

During the 14-15 school year I was able to visit each existing NICS-Oasis school and share a module that I developed. I started each training with an overview of "Collaborative Leadership" and at times referenced the 11 Practices of Collaborative Leaders published by George Ambler, on Sept. 23rd, 2013. He states that there are 11practices of collaborative leaders. I will write about each practice, give a quick summary from his perspective and add some personal thoughts.
1. Collaborative leaders must be passionate about their purpose, mission, vision and set of values.  They must be able to create an atmosphere where people can unite behind their guiding principles.  People follow a passionate, articulate leader and these leaders "seek out people who are passionate about the purpose and vision of the enterprise and help them participate in bringing the vision into reality".  At our schools, a passionate leader seeks out those who share a common vision to make and follow strategic plans, the CSIP (continued school improvement plan), and actively participate in making those documents. In NICS/Oasis we are hired sharing the same Christian beliefs, agreeing to the same Statement of Faith, and sharing the same purpose of "reaching the world for Christ through Christian education".  Already being unified with our purpose, mission, vision and values give us a great starting point for being collaborative.
2. Collaborative leaders must accept the fact that they are not in control.  Employees commit "as the result of inspiring leadership and a meaningful cause" . True collaborative leaders "lead without a safety of authority, position and hierarchy".  Inside our schools a collaborative leader carries their title but takes risks to lead without the safety of title. Authority is shifted to a leadership team that takes an active role in representing their school/department divisions and decisions are made collectively, with the ultimate decision being made by the director in places where consensus can't be reached or a decision needs to be made quickly.
3. Collaborative leaders must flatten their organizational structures.  This means that there are fewer levels of management and more people reporting to their division leaders. In our schools this means that leaders still have their division of duties but an FLT (leadership team) is more vested in making decisions for the school, with input from their stakeholders, and these leaders take more responsibility and increased accountability for bringing in change and making broader decisions. Most of our schools have a weekly FLT or management team meeting where decisions are made collectively, or for non-negotiable items the decisions are made unilaterally and shared for clarity.
4. Collaborative leaders must lead horizontally (not vertically).   "Collaborative leadership is about breaking down silos and building trust based cross-functional relationships". Traditionally, decisions were made vertically and few knew the results, the process, or had input; they just received the decision. In collaborative leadership models, decisions are made transparently and shared across the school, as appropriate. Finance still at times needs a 'silo' inside the leadership team on salaries; H.R. still needs a 'silo' inside the leadership team on confidential personnel issues" but the vast majority of the school's decisions are transparent, and over communicated. "Leading a horizontal team requires influence and strong relationships. To lead outside your area of responsibility and accountability is the hallmark of collaborative leadership". An example I learned as BAIS director is to be able to answer questions to elementary parents about the upcoming spelling bee, when the elementary principal is absent, because I have been given knowledge of that event ahead of time.
5. Collaborative leaders develop leaders at all levels.  It is almost to the point of viewing everyone as a leader and figuring out ways to plug them into the school and have them try out leadership capabilities. As gifting's and talents become apparent, a good collaborative leader will acknowledge those talents, encourage this employee to lead a committee, join a committee, facilitate an event, join in a curriculum review, join a PLC (professional learning community), and try out leadership. We all know that with success, confidence is built, and all leaders can point to the first time they were encouraged to try something new. Collaborative leaders are always trying to find out the best in their employees and develop them as leaders.
6. Collaborative leaders build a foundation of trust, are vulnerable, and develop norms for which their division can operate. Patrick Lencioni describes the" dysfunctions of a team as "lack of accountability, fear of commitment, lack of conflict, and avoidance of accountability- are the results of the absence of trust." Trust is truly the foundation of teamwork and collaboration. Trust is built intentionally, nurtured, and reinforced. Collaborative leaders "must have the courage required to trust others, to risk being vulnerable, and to expose who you are and what you stand for to others. In schools, each division, including the field leadership must be vulnerable, must talk about trust, must earn trust and not throw others "under the bus", "talk badly about others". Divisions in a school must develop group norms to help guide their meetings and a decision-making process to help them work cohesively towards that common vision.
7. Collaborative leaders must encourage risk taking.  Employees who feel trusted and supported are more open to take a risk. Risk by individuals and teams promote creativity, innovation, learning and growth. People are more interested in driving change when they know they are supported, encouraged to take risks and not worried about how to cover their "butts" if they fail. All of us leaders had somebody encouraging us to take a risk, try to lead, cheerlead for us through the process. We need to reciprocate and do this for our emergent leaders.
8. Collaborative leaders lead with questions. I loved learning this as my mentor pointed out that most staff comes to you as a leader with solutions already formulated in their heads. When advice is sought, a collaborative leader will clarify the question being asked, and will ask what solutions have already been thought through. The vast majority of the time, the employee already has the answer you will quickly give and there is nothing more empowering than to reinforce their solutions and encourage them to go with it, thanking them for taking the time to take the initiative to problem solve. If they don't give you the advice you would give, listen to all their suggestions, and add in your solution to the mix, and follow-up with them, encouraging the staff to consider yours, with theirs. It is empowering to school staff and to all of our team leaders. Effective questions open up conversations and creative solutions are more easily found. "Conversation is how groups think".
9. Collaborative leaders share information broadly. I have learned over my career in administration that knowledge is perceived as power and nothing is more effective in breaking down teams than to have given information to only a small, select group of people. That group sometimes feels more favored, or more important, because they have information that others don't. I alluded to this in breaking down silos that in sharing information broadly (except of course for the few items that must remain confidential), by being transparent to the school's stakeholders, everyone feels empowered and valued. I have learned that owning mistakes and being vulnerable in sharing that can enhance trust. That isn't to say that collaborative leaders must share all their dirty laundry, reasons should be justified on why you are being that transparent, but it is good in laying that foundation of trust.
10. Collaborative leaders support transparent decision-making. In the C.E.S. training that I have had I learned early in my administrative career that having a transparent, decision­ making norm as one of our group leadership norms is empowering to the staff and teams to not only know who is making the decisions, but to know the times when they are a part of the decision-making process. I have been on many leadership teams with varying "decision-making norms" but a good example of one would be: our decision­ making goal is consensus but on time-sensitive issues we will go with a 2/3rds majority vote of those present, using the fist or five method, and having everyone unified to support the decision, even if they were in the voting minority. There are many ways to write this norm but to have it defined for each team is key. It only takes about 15-20 minutes to make a decision-making norm, but it is empowering to the staff to have it. In a true collaborative approach, the team/division leader (finance, elementary, secondary, local staff, etc.) will state who is making the decision, for instance the FLT team may be the one striving for consensus and actually making the decision, but ok with a 2/3rds majority vote, but staff meetings were already done where 10-15 minute discussions happened (whip or popcorn discussions) where the division leader is representing his/her division at the FLT. Staff just want to know who is making the final decision and in what time-frame and how, if any way, their voice is somehow in the mix. All staff must realize that for a few key issues, the director of the school, or the division leader of the team, may have a nonnegotiable item
11. Collaborative leaders encourage constructive conflict.  A collaborative leader wants many different views presented and for the team to work through them to come up with a solution they can agree on. I remember well wanting all my team to give input into all issues affecting the school. We had a foundation of trust and our meetings were a safe place to brainstorm, give input, be passionate, cry, voice opinions, challenge others because we knew at the end of the day (or time frame) we would have consensus or a decision that had 2/3rds of our vote that we would all support.  "Without open and constructive conflict innovation fails, decision-making stumbles and creative solutions become scarce. Collaborative leaders ... celebrate diversity and welcome new and challenging perspectives with the goal of finding innovative solutions".

This ends the practices outlined by George Ambler, but coming from a Christian perspective, I would like to add another practice from the word of God, Ecclesiastes 4:8-12 (NIV):
12. There was a man all alone; he had neither son nor brother. There was no end to his toil, yet his eyes were not content with his wealth. "For whom am I toiling," he asked, "and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?" This too is meaningless- a miserable business! Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken. I have learned much during my administrative tenure that you need support, advice, prayer, and accountability from wise people around you. I view the "three strands" in our schools as our FLT members (principals/lead teachers/business managers), our DAC (director advisory councils filled by parents), and our Home Office support (executive team leaders and department heads). Having been a director, I know how lonely it is at the top and having the council of many, the advice and prayers of "three strands", is empowering.  Praise God for what He does in our schools and through broken vessels.

George Ambler's conclusion states that a collaborative style of leadership allows ... "the freedom to take risk, to fail, to engage in constructive conflict, to participate in decision-making and to experiment, to learn and innovate.

I want to state what I have learned that collaborative leadership is not:
• a decision has to be made by everyone with a consensus vote ( practically impossible for schools)
• abolishing division of duties and an hierarchal structure in schools (schools must have a division of duties and authority must be established)
• neutering the director or principal for making their own decisions (every leader has non­negotiables, like politicians run on platforms; it is ok to state to the leadership team, or the school, that this is a non-negotiable for me and won't be voted on or changed during my tenure)
• getting everyone's input into every decision that affects the school (we worked hard to have each division give feedback to their division leader who represented them at the FLT where most school-wide decisions were made)
• taking away decision-making from the different divisions (we worked hard to let secondary make decisions for secondary; elementary make decisions for elementary; finance to make decisions for finance; HR to make decisions for HR; but for issues that crossed divisions, or issues affecting the whole school, those decisions were made by the FLT -that is why each different division should have their own norms and their own decision-making process)
• time-consuming (we still made decisions and made them in an allotted period of time; to seek input, you can devote 15 minutes of a staff meeting to hearing input and then make a decision there in the division, or have the division leader take it to the FLT where he/she represented the feelings of his/her division)

The conclusion from my trainings is that collaborative leadership really can build and strengthen the climate/culture of a school. I always approached my leadership team as an opportunity to train them to all be future directors.  I wanted them to know the issues I faced daily/weekly and to have a voice into speaking into those issues. I wanted them to know 100% of the inner workings of BAIS, our school. I wanted each of them to have a voice in DAC, in our Dialogues with Directors, in our weekly communication out to the parents, in our PR with the city (Kota Baru), our banks (as we pursued loans), our debt repayment plans, etc. Our FLT members didn't have to attend all meetings, but at least one accompanied me, and then reported back in the next FLT meeting what transpired. Our FLT knew the budget, knew the salaries of our employees, attended the yearly budget DAC meeting, were involved in every discipline issue across the school (not every investigatory meeting, but in every debrief). Our FLT kept apprised of each new policy coming from the Home Office, and communications shared with me from the Home Office were shared with them (unless of a personal nature). They heard at least once a semester, "if my plane goes down, and I go up, BAIS must not skip a beat and anyone of you could direct and know every inner working of this school". I was blessed by our FLT (we called them our management team but they did much more than manage, they did lead!). I hope they all will one day be directors!


Ambler, George (2013). 11 Practices of Collaborative Leaders.  Website:

Lencioni, Patrick (2012). The Advantage . CA: Jessey-Bass,A Wiley Imprint. ISBN: 978-0- 470- 94152-2

Lencioni, Patrick (2002). The FIVE Dysfunctions of a TEAM, A Leadership Fable. CA:  Jessey- Bass, A Wiley  Imprint.  ISBN:   978-0-7879-6075-9

Maxwell, John C. (2001) . The 171ndisputable LAWS of TEAMWORK . Nashville: Thomas  Nelson. ISBN : 978-1-4002-0473 -1

Comments - 3

VICTOR O ADARA on March 31, 2016

It shall go a long way to get people back to GOD.

VICTOR O ADARA on March 31, 2016


Tamara on July 20, 2018

As a member of Future Business Leaders of America, leading is not easy. Keep up the good work.

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