The collaborative contradiction

I am preparing to write a new book on Collaboration. In my reading around the issue I am coming across an uneasy tension between collaborative ideals and highly non-collaborative practices working alongside one another.

Indeed as I read Warren Bennis’s Organizing Genius I am concerned that the collaborative ways need non-collaborative frameworks to operate.

I am talking about Walt Disney who Bennis holds up as running a highly collaborative collective within his world famous studios.

Disney is criticised for being something of a tyrant. He would not always be the best at sharing credit for work, would bark at staff and paid poorly – Bennis reports that salaries doubled overnight once Dreamworks and other animation studios started poaching staff.

And yet for all of this non-collaborative, tyrannical, even abusive conduct, Bennis claims collaborative efforts emerged which changed the world of entertainment.

We might also think about Steve Jobs and his own positioning as central figurehead, perhaps Alex Ferguson in sport terms and others in diverse sectors (any ideas? Please do share them in comments)

Bennis suggests that sometimes individuals are required to position themselves as gatekeepers essentially protecting the collaborative team behind from conventional pressures and criticism.

There might be something in this. The leader drawing the fire leaving the team to get on with their stuff without interference.

The problem is that in the Disney case, Bennis suggests that this role was taken up by Walt’s brother Roy. So what was Walt’s excuse?

There may also be something about having a central
identity that that collaborative team members can subscribe their own efforts and egos to.

And does this suggest that a truly collaborative model is neither possible nor desirable?

What is the challenge for collaborative leadership?

3 Responses to “The collaborative contradiction”


  1. 1 Hugh Griffiths December 4, 2011 at 5:46 pm

    I think this is a really critical area of emerging thought. I am fascinated by the tension that exists between the ‘hard-edges’ of a visionary leader and the ‘soft-edges’ of a collaborative team.

    In my experience collaborative teams really do not seem to excel unless there is a compelling force of leadership that pulls them into harness and synchronisation to achieve a goal. That’s not to justify domineering, bullying or other negative leadership practices – simply to recognise that for a ‘body’ of people to function well together, they need to do more than collaborate – they need a ‘head’ that will lead, structure and bring together their work.

    To co-labour is not the same as to co-lead.

  2. 2 Derek Winter (@dwinter) December 4, 2011 at 10:11 pm

    Perhaps it’s also true that collaboration only ‘works’ in certain circumstances; that it is not appropriate in all situations? I think you’d find the following article interesting: http://bit.ly/vaUaYp via @HarvardBiz

    • 3 neildenny December 5, 2011 at 7:30 am

      Thank you for the comments.

      Tough collaboration as a concept could work. When the going gets tough the tough get collaborating as Billy Ocean once never sang.

      Certainly I have spent years warning within one specific collaborative model -that of collaborative divorce practice – that collaboration is far from the easy option. It is hard work with lots of sweat snot and tears.

      And that article referred to is brilliant together with the comments. It chimes with many of my thoughts on this topic including the challenge of not knowing, the DeBono lateral approaches, vulnerability and needing to bust the stifling paradigms of right and wrong.

      Thank you again. I am so excited to be writing this book and cannot wait to share more with you.


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