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Executive Education

Collaborative Leadership

Understanding Collaborative Leadership with Professor Michael Y. Lee

Michael Y. Lee

Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour, INSEAD

Programme Director of Collaborative Leadership (New in 2024!)

Think of your organisational structure as the bones of the body, every organisation has different structures ranging traditional systems to newer decentralised models. However, building the muscles in collaboration and empowerment is just as important to succeed.

Please tell us more about your research and background.

I did my Bachelors degree at Harvard University where I studied intellectual history, economics and philosophy. After graduating, I went into the non-profit sector working for different NGOs and foundations, focused on looking at how they can measure the social impact of different non-profits within the social sector industry. I then decided to get my MBA from U.C. Berkeley's Haas School of Business and worked for a few years in management consulting before completing my doctorate at Harvard Business School.

My research starting from my doctorate to now has revolved around studying novel and decentralised forms of organising that are trying to operate with less or minimal hierarchy. Some key questions that shape my research are: How do you function as an organisation with less top-down authority? How do you shift decision-making and problem-solving downwards through your organisation? How do you lead in collaborative ways?

What has struck me from my years of research is that leadership is just as important in a collaborative model as in a top-down model. So, we might think that when we decentralise, the role of a leader becomes less important but that is absolutely not the case. In many ways, it is even more important!

Your research delves into decentralised systems and self-management, what lead you to this topic of interest? 

After I completed my bachelor’s degree, I embarked on an exhilarating year-long journey in leadership development through the Coro Fellows Programme, which brings a unique approach to leadership. Tasked to complete group projects, what differed was that there were no traditional leaders calling the shots. Instead, we were armed with an array of tools and techniques such as effective meeting facilitation methods, decision making strategies and more, all designed to foster group self-management and governance.

What struck me most during this experience was really witnessing the transformation in myself and our group - the level of engagement, personal ownership, the surge of creativity in problem-solving that resulted from self-management left a significant impact on me. Prior to this, I had always thought that you needed a formal leader to succeed, it was a real eye-opener to see that not only was this type of self-management possible, but it was also remarkably beneficial in unleashing the talent and energy in myself and the group.

During my subsequent work with NGOs sectors, for-profit entities – all of them in traditionally structured organisations - I noticed that I never was able to connect with the same level of engagement and personal ownership that I had felt when I was working in a self-managed group. It left me with this question that led me to my PHD -

How can you incorporate the principles of collaboration and self-management not only as a team but also throughout the entire organisation?
Why do you see Collaborative Leadership as a current topic to be taught to the leaders of today?

It is incredibly timely, as now more than ever, business leaders are faced with the challenges of leading under uncertainty. Change is happening at lightning speed, new challenges are lurking around every corner, and employees are seeking more autonomy and a greater sense of ownership in their work.

The nature of knowledge work has evolved - expertise is distributed more widely across the organisation and no longer held just by managers and leaders. As a result, the conventional top-down leadership style is losing its effectiveness.

This new context requires a different kind of leadership, one that pushes decision-making downwards to really foster ownership and engagement across levels of the organisation, that facilitates collaborative problem-solving, and  thatit draws on individual expertise from across the organization to develop a holistic solution. This is precisely why I wanted to design this programme – to equip today’s leaders with the tools and insights they need to navigate this shifting terrain successfully.

Could you elaborate on the collaborative leadership principles that participants will learn and practice during the programme?

This programme is designed with the principle of facilitating learning on multiple levels, starting from a conceptual level to a practical level, introducing a range of practical tools and techniques, and culminating with deep experiential learning with 1-1 coaching.

Part 1: Exploring new models of decentralised organisational design 

The first part of the programme focuses on providing you with a conceptual framework to understand these new models of decentralised organising and how they differ from hierarchical structures to deliver greater productivity, engagement, and results. We will look at both their strengths and their weaknesses during the programme.

Part 2: Understanding and practising collaborative leadership principles

Drawing on these new models of organising, we move to understand which key principles of collaborative leadership leaders can enact in their organisation to facilitate greater empowerment and collaboration even in a hierarchical structure. During the programme, I will introduce what I call the three metaphors of Collaborative Leadership.

Around each of these metaphors, the programme will provide practical tools to enable you to concretely enact them in different work situations such as running meetings, making important decisions, daily interactions with your teams and more.

Part 3: Strengthening your collaborative leadership

One of the key lessons from my research is that collaborative leadership is not easy, in fact, it may be the harder way to lead in comparison to the current traditional structures. The third part of the programme provides an immersive exercise designed to enable participants to feel the payoff and challenges of enacting collaborative leadership.

By placing participants in high-pressures situations where trade-offs of different leadership styles are felt and decisions must be made, this exercise aims to provide greater self-awareness about one’s own readiness for and resistance to collaborative leadership.

This multi-level learning journey means that participants will leave with a broadened understanding of collaborative leadership, a new set of practical tools, but also a transformed perspective of their own skills and a concrete roadmap for bringing this into their organisations. With the guidance of expert coaches, the programme culminates in designing an individual action plan to implement in your organisation.

How do you incorporate your research findings into the programme’ s curriculum to ensure participants cement their learnings?

The program integrates the latest research and understanding about decentralized models of organizing, both from my research as well as from others. What has struck me from my years of studying cutting-edge decentralised models of organisation, is that they offer key principles and practices that leaders in even traditional organisations can borrow to unleash talent in their organisation.

Because of this, I think of organisational structure as akin to the skeleton of a human body: they provide an important foundation for how the body functions and moves, but the muscles are just as important. Similarly for organizations, if you build the muscles of collaboration and empowerment in your organization, you can gain a lot of the benefits of self-management, even within a hierarchical backdrop. 

In your experience, what are some of the key challenges that leaders and organisations face when trying to adopt decentralised organizational designs? 

I expect that transitioning to a new organisational structure will be met with resistance from leaders and employees alike. Our inclination towards hierarchy is deeply ingrained in our psychology - we naturally want to organise ourselves into dominant and submissive positions within the workplace. So much research shows that we tend to create hierarchy even before it exists!

In addition to that, I think leaders do struggle to distribute authority as they are ultimately responsible for what happens in their organisation and are accountable to different stakeholders up the chain. There is always going to be pressure on leaders to step in to take control and in doing so, they risk shutting down the space where others in the organisation can exercise their autonomy and voice to contribute to the overall problem-solving effort.

Collaborative Leadership is sometimes a harder journey because leaders must navigate the delicate balance of ensuring performance while letting go of control– I think of this as a razor’s edge that leaders are walking on.


What career level is the content the most relevant for? 

This programme is fundamentally designed for leaders aspiring to tap into the energy and ingenuity of their team and organisation in a more powerful way. The programme is suitable for a range of leaders, but you stand to gain the most if you are an experienced manager leading large teams or a senior manager running business units or organisations.