Getting Collaboration Wrong and the Biases of Leadership

It began with a hit of sugar.  Moments before his high-speed delivery James Duggan (Getting Collaboration Wrong and the Biases of Leadership) downed his high-octane chocolate bar.  It was the story of his PhD and how it moved from being a thesis about cultural change to one about leadership and collaboration.  The story included changes of supervisory team and changes of focus amidst rapid changes in political and policy contexts and the crisis ridden economic environment of communities.  It was a story about the myths of leadership and the reduction of collaboration to just another form of followership.

In our different ways – we the audience – have also experienced the uncertainties, the complexities, the rapid changes affecting our personal and professional lives.  It was a story that hit home. In my mind, the very word ‘collaboration’ carries with it the uneasy connotations of submission to an invading power as in war time.  And with the rapid-fire privatisations of the public sector impacting on the working lives of people in education, health, the community and social services there are increasing numbers of professionals and their clients who feel under attack by invading forces.

James forcefully argued that in response to the increasing fragmentation experienced across the public sector due to the privatization of services, the myth of leadership had taken hold.  He quoted  O’Reilly and Reed (2010: 961)  who refer to this increasing reliance on ‘leaders’ to fix situations as ‘leaderism’. It:

“potentially alleviates and absorbs the endemic tensions between politicians, managers, professionals and the public inherent in NPM [New Public Management] systems by drawing them together into a unifying discourse of a leading vision for their services in which they, collectively, play a major role.”

We can see it in the ‘superheads’ who are brought in to ‘fix’ failing schools just as much as we can see it in the call for a political leader to solve the issues of the day.  It is embedded in the heroic pervasive neoliberal image of the captain of industry who single handedly conquers a market and generates wealth.  Without such people, so the argument goes, we would all be helpless.

Yet James went on to show what in our hearts and our experiences we already know, it is just a myth.  The paucity of thinking in such views was neatly summed up in a quote from a policy document heralding the new thinking under a new leadership:

“What we do not yet know is quite what we are hoping to achieve through the big thinking and the small starts, what the partnership working of 2013 will look actually look like and how we will get to the point at which we know. “

There was no specification of the ‘big thinking’, merely the aspiration that somehow through ‘collaboration’, it would happen, and then the point would be reached “at which we know”.

What exactly is collaboration?  Again James showed the paucity of thinking behind this concept in the minds of managers and policy makers.  In James’ view collaboration is a highly complex mode of operation that in the managerialism of contemporary organizational practice is too often typically reduced to performance indicators.  For example, rather than thinking through how collaboration between different organisations may be achieved, each organisation would create incentive structures appropriate for their own organization, leading to a tick box culture.

In order to circumvent the managerialism and actually address real issues and needs as one head teacher put it “We’ll do what needs to be done and tick the box afterwards”.  That is to say, if something right happens, it is often despite not because of the managerialist performance criteria.  More cynically, as James pointed out, innovations happen and a school may be caught up in an innovation which leads to a degree of success and the leader then takes the credit for something that he or she had little concrete part in.  In James’ view, innovation is the result of a ‘co-production’ by many actors and agencies in a massively complex system.  This complexity is reduced and appropriated by managerialism and privatisation.  The success is trumpeted as the heroic accomplishment of the leader modeled after the practices of the private sector.

When James came to his last powerpoint slide, the debates began.  The questions were many:

How do you reclaim “big society” without it falling back into policy driven, market driven managerialism?


What is the role of people’s agency in innovation and collaboration?


What would it mean for collaboration, innovation and co-production to work? what does working look like?

In whose interests does it work?

Finally, James’ initial sugar input had all but exhausted itself and an end had to be called.  But this was not the end of the story…..  through great collaborative endeavor we repaired to the local hostelliery for supplementary inputs of energy and the debates continued.  Thanks James, a great seminar!!

John Schostak

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