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September 2016
| Issue #5

Understanding facilitative leadership

By Rebecca Ejo Colwell, MBA, Certified Integral Facilitator, CEO Ten Directions

Why do we need facilitative leadership?

Like so many concerned global citizens, I am astounded by the complexity of the challenges we face. Whether it’s climate issues, poverty, hunger, health services, or economic transparency, it’s clear that the emergence of lasting solutions hinges upon our collective creativity and our ability to leverage the power of more networked intelligence.

Anyone who’s had experiences like mine will probably agree: Heroic leadership resident in a select few is insufficient to resolve conflicts, to solve complex problems, and to generate the necessary commitment and cooperation to make change at all levels of endeavor.

The complexity we face is simply too great for a handful of individuals to manage—and the inherent cooperation required for effective solutions means that the keys to success are no longer held by a few decision makers. And this means that we all need new facilitative leadership capabilities to facilitate and leverage collective intelligence and diversity of worldviews and experience across our organizations and institutions.

My colleague Rob McNamara, leadership coach and author of The Elegant Self, picks up this thread, and reflects on how these new capabilities are also the source of power inside organizations:

“Facilitative leadership is one of the emerging leadership paradigms making its way into more and more organizations, governments and institutions. It is a co-creative leadership model asserting that leaders should effectively facilitate deep collaboration. ...role and position no longer exclusively distribute power. Now, capability does.”

Facilitative Leadership or Masterful Facilitation—Is there a difference?
Yes, and no.

Whether we talk about facilitative leaders or masterful facilitators, we’re really talking about the same type of powerful capability.

Though the facilitator may not be the formal “leader” of a team or group, they attend to greater and higher collective capability, which is absolutely a form of leadership. Likewise, though the facilitative leader may not be in the formal role of facilitator, their courage, authenticity, depth and skill positively impacts the quality of group coherence and collaboration—which is absolutely a form of facilitation.

In my experience, facilitative leaders are like tuning forks for collective intelligence—which I contrast to the image of a “brick layer” who is more concerned with setting down the rules and structural boundaries of group process.

What is it like when truly sophisticated facilitative leadership is at work?

Even though we’re all experienced in “working together” with other people, most of us still struggle at one point or another in the process of participation and collaboration. And even when a collaboration does seem to be functioning OK, it’s common to be confounded by what makes or breaks it—let alone, what elevates it to another level.

Let me share a type of experience that is qualitatively beyond good, functional working together. In these higher-order collaborative cultures, the experience is characterized by a “flex-flow” quality, both for participants and for facilitative leaders. Here’s what I’ve experienced (and enjoyed) firsthand:

  • I experience a lot of creative movement and dynamic energy—yet it’s not chaos. I notice a high degree of clarity and precision, yet it’s not rigidity. The balance between structure and spontaneity, individual and collective, interior and exterior is alive and flowing.
  • I start to notice that I am nourished (not depleted) by the collaboration. It’s literally giving me energy, not requiring me to provide my energy to keep it going.
  • I feel more at ease and liberated to make a wider range of contributions. I can think, reflect, test, question, dialogue, explore and play.  As I feel received and deeply listened to, I’m supported to come into greater authenticity and depth with others around me.
  • Alongside the care, I also encounter a healthy and invigorating sense of challenge. We are here to support each other, and in that intention, we are here to grow each other. The flavor of care is dynamic: it includes being with what is, and striving for what is becoming.
  • I become more capable. My individual capabilities are elevated by the emergent capabilities of the team and of the whole.

Facilitative leaders open up dramatically different experiences for themselves and participants by authentic engagement and inviting new depth and span—whether it’s a conversation, a meeting, an event, a coaching session, or a retreat.  We want more facilitative leaders, and we need these capabilities and this kind of participation to transform conflict, work culture and systems—and by extension, change the world.

About me

For close to 30 years I have worked with organizations and leaders to integrate greater facilitative awareness and skills inside of their organizational, systems or team initiatives. This source of inspiration led me to co-create Integral Facilitator, a new discipline and a competency based certificate program focused on advanced facilitative leadership, and including advanced proficiencies for working with complexity and depth in groups.