4.1 Co-Created Leadership

Shared understanding of strategic priorities across the workforce
Open and transparent leadership
Senior team visible engagement in improvement/innovation
Delegated decision-making

It is unsurprising that enlightened leadership often plays a key role in driving workplace innovation within enterprises. Leadership theory is highly contested, but leadership development has gained increasing prominence through business schools, professional institutions and consultancy.

Early leadership theories were primarily focused on the distinction between “task focus” and “people orientation” and this remains a useful distinction. More recently theories have emphasised “transformational”, “charismatic”, “visionary” and “inspirational” leadership. These often draw on the rapidly growing number of biographies which celebrate business leaders such as Jack Welch and Steve Jobs.

The dark side of such leadership approaches soon began to emerge including the potential for abuse of power, narcissism, destabilisation, blind obedience and fear of questioning. One US academic commentator (Khurana) argues that the extraordinary trust in the power of charismatic CEOs displayed in these leadership approaches “resembles less a mature faith than it does a belief in magic”.

Alternative approaches advocated by Peter Senge and others focused on leadership as a creative and collective process. They were less concerned with the central, charismatic individual and more with the creation of opportunities for employees to seize the initiative and contribute to decision making. Such “shared and distributed leadership” relates to a concern with empowerment and building organisational capability. It is integral to workplace innovation because it focuses on releasing the full range of employee knowledge, skills, experience and creativity. It means that workplace culture and practice provides everyone with the opportunity to take the lead in areas which reflect their own expertise or initiative, whether strategic, innovative or operational, while understanding and aligning their actions with those of others.

Such perspectives are fully aligned with workplace innovation, where leadership can be seen a collaborative, or co-created process in which diverse actors take the lead in tasks or enterprising actions that reflect their competence, creativity and passion. From this angle, leadership is not associated with individual charisma or authority; rather it is embodied in shared direction and purpose created through organisation-wide opportunities for strategic thinking, collaborative decision-making and enterprising behaviour.

Co-Created Leadership
Don’t worry about . . .



Grand strategy



Do worry about . . .

Empowering jobs

Self-managed teams

Line management culture

Strategic thinking

Employee voice

Leadership for Workplace Innovation in Practice

We recently reported on the outcomes of a workplace innovation programme in Scotland supported by the country’s major economic development agency (Exton & Totterdill, 2019). The programme involved two diverse cohorts, one of ten companies and one of nine, each of which took part in a structured programme of activities including use of the Workplace Innovation Diagnostic® at the outset and conclusion of the programme, joint workshops, peer-to-peer action learning sets, and on-site support led by experienced workplace innovation facilitators.

Companies were typically motivated to join the programme by a desire to engage employees more effectively, particularly in activities and behaviours relating to performance enhancement, continuous improvement and innovation, and/or organisational restructuring. Participation in the programme was free-of-charge, though it did involve a significant time commitment.

The 12 month programme, based on The Essential Fifth Element, was designed to help companies design and undertake significant workplace innovation journeys, leading to tangible improvements in organisational practices and culture that benefitted both business performance and quality of working lives. In the great majority of cases the programme succeeded in this aim, though the depth and impact of the resulting changes varied significantly from company to company (Exton & Totterdill, 2019). As the following table shows, the differing roles of leadership in each company were closely associated with this variation in outcomes.

Company Workplace Innovation Leadership Engagement Programme Impact
Company B
Social Care
Need for new business model to enhance staff engagement, client satisfaction and cost-effectiveness.
Introduction of self-managed teams.
Flattened management structure.
Improved processes and procedures.
Coaching culture.
Participative change model.
Full commitment from the Chief Executive and other senior team members throughout the process, visibly championing the transformation. Major
Successful implementation of 14 pilot teams, with high levels of staff engagement in the change.  Extensive adoption of the new model throughout the company following the end of the programme.
Company D
Loss-making branch plant requiring improvements in employee engagement and productivity.

Enhanced teamworking.
Coaching style of management.
Morning meetings further developed.
FabLab sessions drive process improvement.
Cross-team collaboration.
Changed KPIs.
Revived Employee Forum.
General Manager highly committed to changes in leadership style, including delegation of decision-making and employee involvement in improvement. Major
Reduced throughput time.
Enhanced engagement.
Stronger focus on quality.
Transformed culture.
High involvement in innovation and creative thinking activities.
Moved to profitability.
Company G
Youth Work, Play & Leisure
Recognition of need to change leadership style and engagement staff to ensure business sustainability.
Deputy CEO more visible and actively engaged in coaching staff and improving performance.
Improved organisational structure and processes.
Enhanced teamwork practices.
CEO disengaged from the programme and its objectives; unwilling to address ‘root cause’ issues. Operational
Functional changes leading to better communication, improvements in staffing, customer service and quality, and workforce skills enhancement. Structural issues remained largely unaddressed.
Company I
Steel Manufacture
Rescued company in challenging market conditions requiring transformation of workplace practices and culture.
Introduced a comprehensive range of  forums and meetings to enhance communication and employee involvement in problem-solving, improvement and innovation. Change in CEO mid-programme. Both CEOs provided limited empowerment to change leaders but remained largely disengaged. Operational
Several specific process improvements achieved through employee involvement including savings and efficiency gains, plus
skills enhancement and cross-functional training. Change leaders left company shortly after programme, frustrated at lack of continuing senior commitment.

This small sample broadly represents the modes of leadership engagement and outcomes across all nineteen companies participating in the programme. Each of the nineteen was in need of some degree of fundamental change in organisational practice and culture; each achieved ‘quick wins’  leading to performance improvement and the removal of employee frustrations, but only those with active and visible senior engagement with the programme generated a sustainable momentum of change leading to organisational redesign and addressing other deeper structural issues.

Being a leader

Leadership is an integral part of workplace innovation. In our experience as both researchers and practitioners, the introduction of workplace innovation into an organisation changes not just its approach to leadership but its leaders themselves. Where workplace innovation succeeds it is associated with a growth of trust, accountability, curiosity, creativity, coaching behaviours and emotional intelligence within senior teams.

The role of senior team members as sponsors and enablers of workplace innovation was succinctly summarised by Edwin Van Vlierberghe in a series of presentations at our recent Masterclasses and webinars. Edwin formerly led Bombardier’s Global Procurement and Supply Chain and was responsible for some 15,000 people. Previously he was CEO of the Belgian division with 900 employees, where he managed to transform a whole traditional tram producing plant in Bruges into the most productive site in the Bombardier family. In his most recent role, he was asked to lead the cultural transformation of global procurement and the company’s supply chain.

Edwin describes each key leadership role in terms of a “mirror”, in other words a reflective benchmark against which individuals can develop and improve their own competence and behaviours. Whilst the web and bookshops alike are full of leadership principles, guidance and advice, these seven mirrors offer a close reflection of the workplace innovation leadership journey undertaken by many business leaders.

The Seven Leadership Mirrors

Mirror 1
A source of energy and enthusiasm
Creating and sustaining the excitement of a shared vision in a language that makes sense to each individual in the workforce. This is a day-to-day activity, not to be crowded out by routine transactional business, and that requires personal discipline from senior team members.
Mirror 2
Being a living example
Demonstrating the behaviours that you wish to instil in others: listening, encouraging, taking personal responsibility and rigorously avoiding a culture of blame.
Mirror 3
Coaching in two directions
Senior leaders drive alignment and direction by enabling people to use their initiative in achieving shared goals. A coaching style of leadership means stretching the borders of employees’ autonomy, competence and confidence. According to Edwin: “if our leadership team is still needed for the same task tomorrow as today, it is because we have not empowered our people sufficiently or made them more mature”. But it also means continuous reflection on your success as a leader, and allowing others to coach you through feedback on your own behaviour.
Mirror 4
Being a good facilitator
Effective leaders must be close enough to the frontline to ensure that their people have the power, mandate, resources, time and competence to deliver. Acting as champions and guardians of high levels of participation and employee-driven innovation sends clear signals across the organisation and reinforces an enabling culture, one in which ‘reflective time’ is also seen as productive time.
Mirror 5
Leaders as communicators
Explaining the “bigger picture” helps people understand the wider significance of their actions, whilst frequent and grounded communication combined with collaborative evaluation maintains motivation and direction. Communication must, of course, be two-way rather than management ‘briefings’ and top-down corporate messages alone.
Mirror 6
Leaders as bulldozers
Empowered individuals and teams still require leaders to remove roadblocks across the wider organisation, and to be highly responsive to challenges and opportunities. Senior team members need to be visible and asking continuously ‘how can I help?’ Challenging the status quo is part of everyone’s day job, including that of senior teams.
Mirror 7
Keeping the customer in focus
Leaders must ensure that the customer has a face. Even when someone is responsible for just a small part of the final product or service, they must understand how their role adds value to the customer. Education, dialogue, job rotation and direct contact are championed by leaders to create a sense of customer presence in day-to-day work.

Edwin Van Vlierberghe at Bombardier
Edwin Van Vlierberghe at Bombardier

Leaders who demonstrate these behaviours and attitudes build confidence, esteem and self-belief in people, and encourage others to engage with them in building a common purpose. Yet adopting the roles indicated by the seven mirrors will be challenging to traditional leaders accustomed to ‘command and control’ or micromanagement. Many will see power as a zero-sum game: to empower workers, leaders and managers may wrongly perceive that they have to lose it, potentially challenging their self-identity and status within the organisation. Embedded structures and ‘the way we do things around here’ can also have a conscious or unconscious influence on steering leadership behaviours towards inertia.

For some people leadership appears to come naturally.  Yet leadership is not the exclusive preserve of “born leaders”, and the necessary skills, knowledge, attitudes and behaviours can be developed by almost everyone.

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