Co-llaboration: What Guides Us?

How do we find “the complete package” in a leader? Whether our leanings are Democrat or Republican, the current race for Presidential nominations makes it painfully apparent that we have a difficult time finding one person to reflect our values as a society. Our views on fiscal policy, family values and approaches to foreign affairs are just a few of the issues that we, as a nation, expect a single individual to represent as the country moves forwards. Then there is the issue of experience. It is easy to assume that leaders must be qualified to fill the role we ask of them, yet we can’t even seem to agree on what it means to “be qualified” to function as the tip of the spear. Candidates such as Donald Trump and Ben Carson have virtually no experience in the political arena, yet are leading the polls among a voter base that is desperate for change. Hillary Clinton, by comparison, is one of the most seasoned, veteran politicians to ever run for the Oval Office, yet can’t quite seem to cement her certainty as the clear Democratic choice.

Professor Gautam Mukunda of the Harvard Business School suggests that we can look at leaders as “filtered” or “unfiltered” (Mukunda) and that both have their merits, depending on whether you want to “grow to dominance”, or be “sure to be in business in 50 years” (Mukunda). An “unfiltered” leader with little experience is not tethered by “a certain way of doing things” (Mukunda), and can bring great success through the ability to “think differently” (Mukunda). Total failure, however, is just as likely as these same talents can “often lead to terrible results” (Mukunda). A “filtered” leader, by comparison might struggle to “adapt to extreme, sudden change” (Mukunda) or “disrupt the status quo” (Mukunda), but their experience in keeping a ship afloat can be “very effective in a stable situation” (Mukunda).

So what if we want to encourage change and “grow to dominance”, but can’t afford not “to be in business in 50 years”? (Mukunda) Can we not have our cake and eat it?

As collaboration becomes increasingly important in schools, businesses, politics and beyond, an interesting model for leadership has begun to emerge: Co-leadership. Co-leadership allows two or more individuals to assume equal responsibility for guiding a team or organization, and could possibly help organizations to model a culture of collaboration that starts at the top. A partnership brings a host of possibilities, including a broader spectrum of attributes in which constituents can find their values, a greater number of strengths than any of its individual members and the likelihood of “more creative, better vetted, more strategic solutions” (Schildkrout) to name just a few. Why then, is this model not more prevalent in the organizations that surround us? When I first heard of this concept, the disaster of the last coalition government in England jumped to mind. The partnership of the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative party to form a majority government came with the promise of a balanced approach to the country’s needs, at a time when English voters could not agree on a single party to lead us effectively. What transpired was a widespread loss of trust in both parties and a power struggle that led to an assertion of political weight, and the beginning of what now closely resembles an oligarchy. I believe that this example of co-leadership was flawed because the two parties entered the partnership without a clearly defined set of core values. Defining our core values provides us with a “raison d’etre” and a “True North” (George) to which we can hold ourselves accountable when making choices each day. In a model of co-leadership, if each decision is held up to this guiding compass then it becomes more likely that self-interest will be avoided and the reasons for each decision will be clearer for all involved.

At St. Catherine’s, as we continue to evolve and grow as a school, opportunities for joint leadership are arising with increasing frequency. Committee co-chairs, team co-leaders and department co-chairs have all become a part of our leadership structure, and each pair seems deliberately formed to provide a mix of “filtered” and “unfiltered” behaviour. This new challenge is pushing us to define what we do, how we do it and why we make our choices each day. It is is not without its difficulties, however. Learning to work in tandem at a unified pace can be exhausting, as anyone who has gone for a run with someone slower or faster than them can attest. Disagreement certainly also occurs, but through learning to define our values, these disagreements have led many of us to know each other more deeply, and question each other more freely in our pursuit of a successful environment for both faculty and students. Just as the constitution provides a source of debate and guidance as we search for a new leader, the school’s mission and core values give us a strong departure point for our work. Perhaps the challenge of holding each other to these guidelines, through a model of co-leadership, can help to foster a collaborative culture that more closely resembles the “complete package” we are searching for.


Mukunda, Gautam (2012, Oct). Great Leaders Don’t Need Experience. Retrieved from

Schildkrout, A. (2014, Oct 18). A Guide to Co-Leadership: Why It’s Hard, Why It’s Good, And How To Make It Work. Retreived from

George, B., & Sims, P. (2007). True north: Discover your authentic leadership. San Francisco, Calif: Jossey-Bass/John Wiley & Sons.

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