From ‘I’ to ‘we’: how to give up control and shift to shared leadership

From ‘I’ to ‘we’: how to give up control and shift to shared leadership

Published 09 May 2014 10:28, Updated 09 May 2014 13:18

Roma Gaster

Business leaders today face multiple demands on their time as well as their emotional and physical resilience. The imperative to deliver results, drive profits, manage multiple stakeholder interests and do more with less leaves many executives and senior managers burdened. Many feel that the success of a business relies on their efforts alone.

In today’s fast paced and increasingly complex world, doing business has become an intensely personal experience. When asked, most leaders would say they believe in a culture where leadership is shared, but in practice many default to holding on to control. Their internal operating system drives their outer behaviour. Competing commitments of wanting to let go in order to share leadership at the same time as fearing failure, and/or reputational loss, mean that many leaders say one thing but do another.

Unleashing the collective creative capacity of an organisation comes about through a change in thinking along with a change in language. This fundamental shift from the language of “I” to “we” lies at the heart of collective leadership.

An excessive emphasis on the “I” when it comes to leadership can become self-limiting – especially when self focus and self-importance is at the expense of others.

A wider perspective of “we” requires a shift in mindset, one that embraces the belief that the primary purpose of leadership is not just to run the business but to create more leaders. This shift doesn’t happen by accident it requires a conscious choice. It also requires courage, patience and time.

In teams and organisations were leadership is truly shared, previously untapped passion, energy and commitment start to emerge. Paradoxically, individual responsibility and accountability are no less important in a system that values collective leadership – in fact the bar is often higher.

So, how do leaders shift their perspective from the “I” to the “we” – and still maintain high levels of accountability and responsibility?

Here are eight suggested ways to begin with:


How much is one individual leader capable of doing it all? In reality none of us is as capable as all of us – most especially true when we are all aligned by purpose and values, and all moving in the same direction. Individual contribution is still vital but it is the effectiveness of collective leadership that opens the door for competitive advantage in today’s fast paced, ever-evolving landscape. Today we have ways of measuring the ratio of effective to ineffective leadership in our organisations. The evidence is compelling – effective leaders outperform ineffective leaders every time – even more so when a collective of leaders is consciously effective.


Developing leadership is their job. A key role of senior leaders is to role model and to light the way. Agreement and alignment to shared purpose, vision and values lays the foundation for developing others. When developing leadership in others becomes the agenda instead of self-preservation and self-interest, what begins to thrive is passion, cross-functional collaboration and a culture where people want to give their best, to learn and grow and adapt to change – together. Collective discretionary effort and collaboration tends to far outweigh silo driven competition.


As Peter Senge, senior lecturer at MIT and founding chair at the Society for Organisational Learning, states – the way to unleash “non-obvious areas of leverage in an organisation is through deep and persistent commitment to learning”.

Deep development challenges our most cherished beliefs and assumptions. The most effective leaders challenge the old ways of doing things, including their own habits and default patterns. They are prepared to be wrong and prepared to learn from the wisdom of others – and this includes openly seeking diverse views across all levels in the organisational structure.


Unknowingly many systems and processes in organisations keep people focused on the “I” – reward and recognition systems are a classic example. When an organisation is able to make the shift to include reward and recognition for both individual and collective contribution, it is as if magically the spirit for the great good is unlocked.

Larry Wilson refers to this as “playing to win – together”.


Encouraging people to broaden their perspective and contribute their ideas not only makes them feel valued but it unearths a rich source of new insights. Employees tend to contribute more enthusiastically when they realise they are being listened to and trusted. This creates a positive feedback loop that fosters ongoing creativity.


A learning culture prepares employees for greater leadership responsibilities. However, learning and development is not just confined to training programs or up-skilling.

Deeper and longer lasting development addresses the personal motivations and behaviours that positively impact performance and influence organisational culture. Cultivating this kind of learning is fundamental to the success of cultural transformation as it allows individuals to become more effective from the inside out.


When collective leadership becomes part of the everyday language and storytelling in the organisation, people begin to believe that it is okay to focus beyond themselves to what really matters for the sake of the greater good. Embedding the vocabulary of shared authority, creative and initiative – in team and individual KPIs, and in team meetings signals a change in the organisation’s identity. Mediocrity and entitlement make way for everyday conversations that make a difference in both relationship and results.


Leaders who are willing to move beyond the “I” mentality find it within themselves to focus on the impact they have on others. This shift in perspective can take the form of becoming the “servant leader”, which requires them to dedicate themselves to serving the collective good, including guiding and teaching others and humbly passing on what they have learned in their own careers. Servant leaders draw their satisfaction from helping others move forward by supporting them to develop their own leadership qualities. This is the realm of positive legacy and when done consciously and collectively their impact can be felt for year and years.

Imagine the impact that effective collective leadership can have on employee engagement. Engaged employees deliver better performance, which is vital for business success in the short, medium and long terms. Research shows that work units with high employee engagement outperformed those with low employee engagement by 10 per cent on customer ratings, 22 per cent in profitability, and 21 per cent in productivity. Disengagement comes at a huge financial cost.

The essence of collective leadership is that leadership can emerge at all levels of an organisation. By shifting from “I” to “we”, leaders open up the possibility of enhancing future creativity, sustainability and relevance of their organisations.

Roma Gaster is a director at The Leadership Circle Asia Pacific. She will be presenting at The Leadership Circle Asia Pacific’s Fourth Annual Conference on Leader Development and Business Performance on 15 May 2014 in Sydney, which will focus on collective leadership, culture and business performance.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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