A Closer Look at the Theory Behind Collaborative Leadership [Study]

Jonathan T. Clark

Submitted to the PhD in Leadership and Change Program of Antioch University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy

October, 2008


Implicit in leadership behavior is the ability to work with others, to be in relationship, and to collaborate. Contemporary theories about leadership have shifted from a focus on the individual “leader” toward the collective act of “leadership.” A concrete understanding of collaborative leadership remains somewhat underdeveloped in the literature and theoretically. This dissertation is a case study of organization’s efforts to change from autocratic organizational leadership to a more collaborative working environment. Taking the form of a literary portrait, the study analyzes an example of action learning about collaborative leadership. The portrait will be of the agency’s change, with special attention given to the issues facing the leadership team as it wrestles to change from top-down to collaborative leadership practice. The primary research question is: In today’s shifting landscape, what practices and conditions will optimize the development of a collaborative working environment? Findings were that the development of a collaborative working environment can be optimized through the careful cultivation of the ten themes that emerged from the study:

  1. on-going learning and continuous development,

  2. flexibility,

  3. trust,

  4. respect/esteem/ positive regard,

  5. willingness/commitment,

  6. facilitative process (establishment of norms, ground rules/agreements, inclusivity, process capability/tacit knowledge of functional group process),

  7. realistic optimism/positive personality/resilience/solution/strength/future focus,

  8. communication skills,

  9. social intelligence (ability to transcend the ego and to self-organize and motivate), and

  10. an appropriate level of technical competence.