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Leading and Following Concurrently: The skill we all need to innovate

We recently worked with a group that was strategizing about how to roll out a new service. As typically was the case, the formal leader of the team had a strong point of view and was very convincing. Given his persuasiveness, experience and role, it was challenging for him to be open to points of view that challenged his position, let alone hear them with curiosity, not rapid judgment and evaluation. In the past this limited team engagement.

This time a junior member of the team had a point of view different from the formal leader. Rather than withhold, she stepped up and led by expressing her opposition and the thinking behind it. There was a long pause then a slow smile spread across the leader’s face. ‘You’re right I hadn’t seen it that way before.’ This interaction avoided a disaster and lead the team to market dominance. For leaders, this is a simple and often overlooked moment in building an innovative culture: having a fierce position and remaining open to new information.


Its no secret everyone is trying to innovate these days. It’s the highest priority amongst 97% of the world’s CEOs. In fulfilling this need, one thing organizations have learned is that telling creative and innovative people what to do and how to do it destroys their creative value.

Of the many efforts to create radical and deep collaboration, there is a growing trend to flatten organizations, become less hierarchical. Become “leaderless” or “bossless”, so there are less people telling others what to do and more room for creativity while still maintaining accountability.

For example, Raj Dey the founder of Eternships recently commented on becoming “Bossless” in describing the burgeoning collaborative environment at his company. Prominent Harvard Business School Professor Barbara Kellerman published a book titled The End of Leadership. The title itself offers a hint of Kellerman’s leaderless future. The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is without a leader. The Occupy Movement was/is “leaderless.” These are just a few examples.

From the outside looking in we might call wildly successful collaborative projects “leaderless” because we can’t always find one person directing. Therein lies the rub of collaboration and leadership: we still think leader means being the smartest, most visible person. Nowadays however that kind of a person, or several people competing to be that person, inherently makes collaboration and success much more challenging. Innovation requires multiple levels of expertise and experience, not just the brilliance of the leader.

When you look closer at radically collaborative efforts you’ll notice they are actually full of leadership of a different kind. Leaders are embracing this “new” approach and are developing radically collaborative cultures and successful outcomes. We call this new and evolving approach to leadership, concurrent leadership because its not just collaborative, its mutual and simultaneous.

Concurrent Leadership

In the interaction referenced above the “leader” led with a fierce position and in the same moment remained open to following new information that offered a different angle. The “follower” listened for understanding, and stepped forward with their own conviction while remaining open. Both led and followed simultaneously. It is as simple as it sounds, and it can be incredibly challenging to do, given structures, roles, varying levels of experience, and limited time. Yet, innovative groups don’t skip this step of innovation.

Maybe we inherently call deeply collaborative efforts leaderless or bossless because we know how difficult and sometimes even impossible it is for multiple people to be leading at the same time. In fact, anarchy is often thought of as everyone leading, and no one following. Its the too many chefs in the kitchen analogy played out in real life. We’ve all been there.

However, research on high performing groups shows that we can all be leaders at the same time, and not fall into perpetual chaos. In fact, Creatively moving through chaos requires everyone to understand the art of leading and following at the same time, or concurrent leadership. The idea of concurrent leadership may sound strange or paradoxical, and its likely something you’ve done before.

Organizations are changing, Leadership Needs to Follow

In the past, the function of leadership and management was to enforce structure to create consistent results,  and hold people accountable.

Today is different. As organizational cultures and structures evolve and priorities change, our approach to leadership must evolve towards fostering an innovative culture. We do this through a leadership that is not just collaborative, but mutual and simultaneous.

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