Collaboration Is the New Leadership

The Spike philosophy demands the humility to be honest about your limitations and seek out those with the complementary strengths (Spikes) that will bring the best out of you and them. This is the new collaboration, built on positive interdependency.

While writing my latest book, “SPIKE—What Are You Great at?” “game-changing” elections took place in both the UK and the U.S. It was becoming obvious to me that our enduring model for society based on mutual trust and respect was perhaps in danger of falling apart.

This is not just because of the way technology has enabled us to spend ever more time in isolation with only our gadgets for company, but also because of the rise of the cult of the individual and the invidious growth of “me and my own” as a mindset.

Spike is part of the “Strengths-Based Revolution,” an uplifting shift away from the fixation with developing our weaknesses but celebrating and capitalizing upon our strengths.

The whole Spike philosophy demands the humility to be honest about your limitations and seek out those with the complementary strengths (Spikes) that will bring the best out of you and them. This is the new collaboration, built on positive interdependency.

Absolutely everybody today understands why collaboration is a necessary part of every high- performing culture. Sports teams have practiced this for many years now, and no successful sports teams ever achieved success without true collaboration being at the heart of all they do.

The logic is unimpeachable, but not many businesses ever appear to really master this. Why?

It is important first to understand the tangible benefits of having a truly collaborative culture:

  • Better decision-making
  • Better use of resources
  • Better outcomes for customers

No one can argue with the above—so why don’t we see more of this?

For Better or for Worse

Let’s start with the obvious, “turf.” So many of us have fought so hard to move up the corporate ladder and eventually get into a position where we can actually “call the shots” and make the decisions that matter. Having gotten there, it’s not easy to relinquish the desire to continue to make and take decisions on your own, no matter what the corporate cost.

When two elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers.

Secondly, most organizations still judge and measure their leaders on their individual results. This tends to kill any spirit of teamwork or collaboration. Sports teams have always been measured on how well the team does, no matter how many brilliant individuals they may have.

Great players don’t win trophies; great teams win trophies.

Collaboration must become one of the key threads of the culture. Therefore, new recruits need to be team players who embrace collaboration by both attitude and behavior. There is still a tendency to recruit or appoint the “superstar” who always delivers despite being a self-serving “lone wolf.” This must change for true collaboration to work.

The chief executive and the top leadership team in the business must exemplify the traits of a strong interdependent team. They must be seen to be truly committed to each other’s success. They are the most influential positive role models.

It is instructive to look at the recent high-profile corporate failure at Uber. It was clear that it celebrated and thrived on the cult of the individual. It was inevitable that for Uber to continue to succeed, it needed a very different type of leader than the mercurial Travis Kalanick. He brought drive, ambition, and forcefulness that left a strong imprint on the culture and values of Uber. Without the determination, drive, and massive self-belief Travis clearly brought, perhaps Uber would not be the most highly valued start-up in history.

The now leaked “values” of Uber included confrontation, “always be hustling,” and the resilience to never back down no matter what the odds. This goes against everything collaboration stands for.

All for One, and One for All

Airbnb is a different successful Silicon Valley start-up. It has taken a contrasting approach.

Firstly, and insightfully, it has a disproportionate number of women at the top of the organization. While this is admirable for many different reasons, it is cleverly and perhaps uniquely a formidable driver of collaboration.

All research provides hard evidence that we tend to breed our men to be dominant, single-minded, and to back their judgments nearly without consultation. While there might be a little bit of exaggeration to this, there is far less exaggeration when we take a close look at how women tend to lead.

It is so much more about consensus, thinking much more about linking than ranking. It’s about the ability to rise to the top of the organization without being fixated upon the power of office. Again, perhaps reflecting the traditional methods of socialization for girls just about everywhere.

Secondly, Airbnb talks a lot about “belonging.” This is underpinned by not only its commitment to its mission and values, but also to its unrelenting belief in honest, two-way communication. It has instituted bi-weekly “world calls,” in which all of their employees (called “airfam”) from all over the world join on live stream. They also have many local two-way communication informal meetings that encourage transparency and lubricate a collaborative culture.

There was a time when the business initiative fitted nicely and neatly into a function or a business unit, e.g., “Finance can deal with that, or it’s a Marketing issue.”

Nowadays, it is rare that the mission-critical initiative or burning problem fits neatly anywhere. It is far more likely to be cross-functional and cross-business. And, therefore, it demands some support from Operations, with some guidance from Finance, and maybe the HR function needs to get involved.

How can this work without collaboration being at the heart of the company?

Well, it just can’t!

Working Together, Winning Together

Leadership has always been difficult, and so it should remain. We are generally handsomely compensated for being the leader. This can be in monetary terms, but it is far overshadowed by the special status we are given. Leaders have the ability to change people’s lives and their livelihoods for the better—this is a huge privilege.

There was a time when the people served the leader; increasingly today, the leader must serve the people.

Traditional cultures tended to challenge down and support up. Progressive and successful businesses today now practice the opposite: They challenge up and support down. Not many businesses have even figured this out, let alone practice it. Until they do, collaboration will never become reality.

While collaboration adds the benefits we have discussed, it rarely happens without enlightened leadership like at Airbnb to make it today’s reality.

We need to appoint a new set of leaders who think less about themselves and much more about the good of the organization and their people. The future of leadership looks increasingly like a decisive argument for more women at the top of organizations.

They tend to feel as committed to each other’s success rather than obsessed with their own personal success.

The Spike philosophy calls for an interdependency on each other’s standout strengths (Spikes) and fuels healthy and sustainable collaboration.

René Carayol is an international speaker, BBC radio presenter and best-selling author. His latest book, “SPIKE—What Are You Great at?” has been endorsed by Kim Jong,​ president of the World Bank. Carayol has been on the board for leading companies, including Pepsi, Marks & Spencer, and TimeIncUkTalk. For more information, visit, e-mail, or follow him on Twitter @ReneCarayol.