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Auteur Leadership: the best choice for collaborative organisations

Identifying the right opportunities for collaboration is often the most exciting part as it tends to be an area where everyone has an idea.  Creative juices start to flow and excitement swells at the prospect of working on projects we have long dreamt of, and within a short space of time many ideas come to the fore.  Then comes the diligence (which tends rapidly to turn into a game of ‘who’s got the time’) to conduct analyses and check facts that are necessary before any real dedication of time and money is made.  And then, at some point when the choices are made about the idea, right partners etc, a key question emerges; how will the collaborative project be managed?  This is where I think the real work starts and, for those excited about the impact collaboration can produce, genuine and quiet excitement becomes a motivating force.

My advice is that at this point, partners (whether there be two or three or more) should dedicate some energy in choosing an appropriate and rigorous governance model, which would subsequently cut through a range of issues commonly experienced in the latter stages of collaboration.  Governance is a subject I will cover in the future, however in the interim I’d like to focus a little on what I think, while not as widely discussed is just as important; namely, what kind of leadership works best for collaboration?  There is merit is suggesting that leadership in all forms can produce results when it comes to leading a team.  Some prefer a leadership style they are used to, others have a capacity to adapt and apply different approaches.  In examining a range of leadership approaches, I think that leadership of a collaborative project is largely dependent on the form of governance chosen.  For instance, in the case of a consortium, which is a very common form of collaboration, the governance model may be flat and participation closed to all but a select and private group.  The leadership approach in this case would be different from say, the case of an ‘innovative community’ whereby governance is flat but participation is open (open sources software).  A range of combinations is possible depending on different variables.  So, in considering the common features that could work in most arrangements, I propose an approach borrowed from the creative world of film direction known as the ‘auteur theory’.

The form of direction in auteur (from the French for author) films is known for its emphasis on the role the Director has in creating a film in which he/she is credited for being the author of the film.  The impression of authorship is created through the sense of direction that the film director creates and establishes as a background for all involved in producing the film.  When translated into a context outside film making and injected into the collaboration process, we have ‘auteur leadership’, a form of management where a person taking the lead role develops a narrative and engages stakeholders to follow it.  It’s about creative and executive control of the ‘story’ of the collaboration as a basis for the strategy.

Film critics such as Pauline Keal point out that an auteur director needs a lot of collaborators, and a good script.  In the case of collaboration, the ‘script’ is the strategic plan that guides the collaboration.  The main thing to remember here is not to directly copy the role of auteur as it is applied in the film-making process.  The essence of auteur leadership is that it controls, so to speak, the overarching narrative of the collaboration to ensure that day-to-day activities are not steered away by the strength of one partner over another.  It is in the balance of the collaborative culture and preservation of the collaborative instinct that the auteur leader is preoccupied, while trusting the capacity of partners to deliver projected outcomes.  To make this work, the auteur leader will be a creative narrative designer, come symbolic analyst, come team coach.

It is important to note that the auteur leader is distinguished from other high level leaders by steadfastly avoiding the creation of ‘group think’ enclaves within enterprises.  Collaboration can easily slip into group think, and existing and widely accepted forms of leadership are not adequate for long term management of a collaborative organisation.  The auteur form of leadership is only possible when there is consensus at the outset that all collaborating partners accept the guiding and guardian role with which the auteur leader is entrusted.

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