Collaborative Leadership & the Challenge of the Future: In Conversation with Peter Hawkins

The existential crises of our time call for fundamentally different ways of thinking, listening, acting, and leading.

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Three Leadership Shifts We Need

We live in an age of extraordinary crises, from the COVID-19 pandemic to climate challenge, where success depends on collective action with stakeholders that are not necessarily under our direct influence. These circumstances call for three major shifts that we need in thinking about leadership.

From heroic leadership to collaborative leadership

First, we have seen for a long time that the days of heroic individual leadership are past and gone. The level of complexity we must deal with today means that if the only point of integration is the CEO, the job is impossible. Instead, we need to move from individual leadership to collective and collaborative leadership. “Collaborative” is important: we want to help teams not to be a team of leaders, but a leadership team. Here’s the difference: a team of leaders is where you have the team leaders say, “Alright, tell me what’s going on in your function”, and everyone else sits passively. It’s a hub-and-spoke team. A leadership team on the other hand is one where we are clear about what is it we need to achieve together that we cannot achieve by working in parallel.

So this means that we have to take team leaders on a journey from being the managers of teams—the ones trying to keep all the plates spinning—to team leaders and team orchestrators, who are looking at the future where we are going, and at what is needed to bring a team together and align everyone to be on the same journey.

A team orchestrator is somebody who is managing the connections between the parts, the connections inside the team as well as with those outside the team—across boundaries, with other public agencies, with the private sector, with the voluntary sector, with the citizenry and so on—and getting people to have the right conversations with one another. The fourth and final stage is for the team leader to become a ‘Team Coach’, not just orchestrating what needs to happen today, but also developing the collective capacity to be able to be more future-fit.

We need to move from individual leadership to collective and collaborative leadership.

From service provider to partnering orchestrator

Second, I have talked with Singapore’s public sector leaders about how we shift from the Public Service as a paternalistic provider, to the Public Service as a partnering orchestrator.

A public agency, facing an increase in demand, was looking to hire many more people. They asked how they could improve their employee branding to attract more recruits. To begin with, I pointed out that they needed to understand the difference between communication, engagement, and partnering. How are they talking with their prospective employees and engaging them? Instead of selling themselves as employers, are they saying: “We need your help with these very important and exciting challenges we are facing?” These are after all great challenges, not just jobs to be done, and the next generation needs to come on board to tackle them along with the public sector.

Who is responsible for education, or healthcare, or social welfare, or sustainability? Beyond the number of people on the payroll in a public agency, there are over five million in Singapore—it’s the whole country. To be an orchestrating partner , we must approach an issue by working with the private sector, the voluntary sector, the community, the citizenry; we have to organise around the issue, not around the function. So much of what we are dealing with cannot be put into specialisms or functions because the real challenges are in the connections and interdependencies.

From business-as-usual to future-oriented innovation

The third shift has to do with what is called Three Horizon Thinking. We spend so much time every day drowning in the detail of business as usual: emails, keeping the engine going, and so on. I ask leaders to write down what percentage of their last three months is spent focusing on this business-as-usual work, how much on innovating for tomorrow, and thirdly, on what’s coming over the horizon in two to five years. And then I ask what they think the percentages should be. Nearly everyone ends up with very different figures.

This is where leadership development is very important, to help leaders work on this gap between what they are doing, and what they know they ought to be doing. The three horizon model tells us that most of us start from Horizon one, business-as-usual, then move to Horizon two, innovating and improving what we do today. This means we become better and better at playing yesterday’s game. What we need is to jump to Horizon three, which is looking to the future, and innovating from that perspective instead: so we are experimenting and learning to play tomorrow’s game, not yesterday’s.

What we need is to look at Singapore and getting all the different ministries and agencies, and the leadership development, to have a shared purpose—which is to help Singapore become future-fit. And this is not something left to a strategy department but brought into all areas; with experimentation in organisational, team and individual transformation, and everything brought back into strategy.

To be an orchestrating partner, we have to organise around the issue, not around the function.

Sustainability as Thinking about the Future: Five Phases

Because ecological sustainability is such an important issue—involving all of life including we humans—we have developed an Eco Phase model, particularly for coaches and organisational development, but which has also been applied to leadership. This model says we have five phases to work through.

The first phase is what we call "eco-awakening" or becoming "eco-curious". This is about waking up to the fact that this is an urgent challenge, which gets worse the longer we neglect it. Indeed, it is already a bigger, more complex challenge than anything we have ever faced, and we cannot just do it by technical problem solving.

The second stage is being "eco-informed". So many of the big oil companies have become "eco-informed" and have already done scenario planning and estimates. The fact is the world cannot afford for us to use more than a small percentage of our remaining fossil fuel reserves. But how do we bring this understanding home and adapt to it? The problem can be overwhelming. People say: “How do we manage the climate crisis?” Part of the problem is that we can’t. Einstein once said that you cannot solve a problem with the thinking that created it. And yet we are still trying to manage the climate crisis with our old thinking that originated the problem.

The third stage is what we call "eco-aware". Here, we must deal with the entire emotional response to this overwhelming challenge. We either retreat into denial, or we go into anger or blame: we think it’s somebody else’s fault. But in fact, we are all responsible: every one of us. None of us can do this individually. At this stage, we must help people through the emotional transformation, so that they don’t fall into apathy, or into blame, or grief and despair, but instead want to do something about the issue.

The fourth phase is "eco-engagement". As I like to point out, “Leadership is not a role, it’s an attitude which begins when you stop blaming others or making excuses, and you accept the challenge of making a difference.” This is where you must have your eyes wide open to what is going on in the world, and you need to be neither overwhelmed nor heroic, but to realise that you can take responsibility for the ecological crisis in every aspect of your work. How then do you engage, as a leader or an employee? What do you need to do differently?

And then you move to the fifth phase—although it is a cycle and not a linear progression–which is that of being "eco-active". How do I go beyond my immediate work to what I need to do with my family, with my community? What do I need to do to influence all those around me? For instance, I have long argued that many of us may have more influence through our investments or pension schemes than with our vote, because it is mostly money that drives the economic cycle and its ecological impact. As an investor, I want to know what good my investments are doing in the world, and whether they are making the positive difference that my grandchildren will need in future.

Sir Ronald Cohen, an early pioneer of Private Equity and venture Capital, has worked with Harvard to measure the actual costs of listed companies, and he found that a significant proportion of the Fortune 500 companies, their measured ecological cost is greater than their profit.1 That means they are unsustainable. Once that sinks in, the employees, customers and investors will walk. So if you want to be an intelligent investor, you better be ecologically informed.

Overcoming Short-Term Thinking

As human beings, we have evolved to respond to the crisis that is in front of us; to think short-term. COVID-19 is an example of this. Despite reports in 2016 anticipating a pandemic in the next five to seven years, the UK government did nothing: they were busy with Brexit. I use this example in training. If you were in the room with decision-makers at the time, what would you have done?

Embodying change: everything is connected

People don’t change through cognitive understanding. Change is always embodied. You have heard the expression that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The road to coaching hell is paved with ‘A-Ha’ moments and action plans that never get enacted. Coming back to the issue of climate action, COP26, like COP22, is full of agreed goals, but they are not commitments. Leadership needs to understand the difference between an agreement and a commitment. An agreement is made with words, cognitively. Commitment is always embodied: it involves the head, heart, guts, the whole being. What we need is a total metanoia: a spiritual (with a small ‘s’) transformation in thinking, feeling, and being.

This means we must be able to do two things to shift human consciousness. We must become more self-aware and more fully understand our responses, our denial, our reactivity, our biases, and we must become sense-aware. That’s personal work. And from deep self-awareness we nurture systemic awareness and an understanding of interconnections.

But I’ve talked to many people about coaching, and they say that they are trained to leave their agenda aside; that it’s not their job to bring ecological issues into the training room. That to me is a very strange way of thinking. After all, do we also not breathe? Eat? Move? If so then the ecology is in the room. We are always coaching in nature and through nature. When we talk about ecology, we tend to see it as something other than us. What we forget is that everything we are part of is also part of us.

We cannot solve the ecological crisis by making it ‘other’. Otherwise, we end up setting up a sustainability office ‘over there’ and we make “them” responsible; or we regard it as just a serious technical problem. Yes, there are technical things that we need to do but there is no shortage of human ingenuity. It’s not an IQ issue; there is perhaps an EQ issue. But the biggest thing we are short of is We-Q: collaborative intelligence.

How do we move from IQ to We-Q? All the technical experts come to the COP conferences and tell us what the possible solutions are. The IPCC tell us the state of the challenge, where we can put all that together. What we don’t know how to do is summon the collaborative intelligence that’s required to join up the global response.

Leadership needs to understand the difference between an agreement and a commitment.

Addressing blind spots: inviting the thirteenth fairy

Another insight is what I call the thirteenth fairy. This is a metaphor based on the Grimms’ fairy tale, Sleeping Beauty, where they invited 12 fairies to the baby’s christening, but they forgot the thirteenth. And the thirteenth wasn’t a bad fairy until they were ignored. In the real world, these might take the form of elements we dismiss or overlook, even when we think we are well prepared based on what we learnt from the last crisis. As a species, we are good at dealing with what’s in front of us, and learning from the last war, but not good at thinking long term. But there are some practical things we can do.

The biggest thing we are short of is We-Q: collaborative intelligence.

The Welsh Assembly, for instance, has a Minister for the Future, and every new proposal must go through their office, and there has to be a future-based commentary presented prior to any vote. I have also had organisations place empty chairs in the room, to represent different voices: such as future generations, or the ecology, or the more-than-human world. Or you could have another chair for the citizenry, the beneficiaries of a public service, or employees. I ask members of top teams to go and sit in the chair to represent these voices. We have to get these voices back into every room. Every meeting should have these empty chairs in them, so that discussions and decisions are driven not by yesterday’s problems but by future-back and outside-in thinking.


Peter Hawkins is Chairman of Renewal Associates and Emeritus Professor of Leadership at Henley Business School and a Senior Fellow of the Singapore Civil Service College. He is a global thought leader on Leadership Teams and author of many best-selling books. His global research on “Tomorrow’s Leadership” is available from www.renewalassociates.co.uk.



  1. Ronald Cohen, Impact: Reshaping Capitalism to Drive Real Change (London: Ebury Press, 2020).

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