Collective leadership

Oban and Mull Community Learning Exchange.

Background paper.


Learning outcomes.

This community learning exchange will explore community led social enterprise in a rural/ island context and the types of leadership involved – how it develops, how it is different and importantly what kind of support it needs to thrive.

In our application for funding we set three learning outcomes:

  • To explore the role and practice of collective leadership in social enterprises in rural and remote rural areas.
  • To build understanding and insight into the opportunities and challenges of leadership in rural community social enterprise
  • To develop ideas about the implication of collective leadership for support to rural community social enterprises.


While the focus is on community enterprise and collective leadership we think that there will also be learning from networking and exchange of wider ideas and experience with the wider group. This will support the exchange of learning across rural/ island/ urban social enterprises and will inform the development of the rural social enterprise hub.


Some questions about leadership in social enterprise.

How would you describe leadership in your social enterprise?

Is it different to leadership in the private or public sectors? If so how?

Does it involve more than one person?

Is it shared between paid staff and a board?

If so, what is important about how you work together?

Is there a link between where you are based and your approach to leadership – rural/ remote rural/ Island/ urban?

What would support future leadership in your social enterprise?


What the research says

There is limited research on leadership in social enterprise. This may be because the sector is still small compared to the private, public and third sectors. It may also be because most leadership research is carried out in the mainstream private and public sector (Jackson et al 2018). What research there is tends to focus on the individual leader, founder or individual social entrepreneur, their personal traits and skills and fits within traditional ideas of leadership. This idea of the ‘heroic’ leader may not reflect what happens in many social enterprises.

Some research suggests that social enterprises lead the way in different kinds of leadership. These are described as ‘collective leadership, ‘responsible leadership’, ‘relational leadership’. They draw on the skills and talents of a wider group of people who work collaboratively to achieve success rather than being directed by one person at the top. It also suggests that context is important and that historic and cultural roots, including the local ecosystem, influence the kind of leadership used in social enterprises. This could mean that we see different kinds of leadership in rural social enterprise and/ or in community led social enterprise.

These are some of the issues we hope to explore over our time together.


The attached appendix draws together material from some of the research. Links are provided if you want to explore any of it in more detail.




Thinking about leadership.

Traditional leadership thinking tends to focus on the individual leader and how their personality, skills, position and achievements allow them to command and control the activities of their organisation. Organisations are seen as predictable and machine like and leadership is a top- down, vertical activity. This is often described as the ‘heroic’, ‘messianic’ model of leadership – with a much greater focus on the ‘leader’ than the wider ‘ship’.

In contrast to this, more critical leadership approaches see organisations as complex systems that are constantly changing and, more like a living organism, adapting to their environment. To survive and thrive in our complex and inter-connected world organisations need to draw on a wide range of perspectives and talents – a more collective approach. Leadership is not the action of one person but is created in the interactions and relationships between people in their particular context. This is a much more horizontal and organic process. Wheatley and Frieze speak of a move from ‘hero’ to ‘host’.

Ideas of collective leadership are linked to ideas of shared leadership, democratic leadership, emergent leadership and distributed leadership. They are not new. In the early 1920s, Mary Parker Follett –a US settlement worker involved in early adult education and community development spoke of power with rather than power over others. Collective leadership has recently attracted interest in education, health, the military and local government as leading to transformational change. The Scottish Leaders Forum and Workforce Scotland currently have a collective leadership programme.


Leadership and community-led enterprise.

In 2007 -8, two Directors of Atlantis Leisure (one of our host organisations) in Oban carried out research into successful community-led sport and leisure service provision in rural areas. This was part of Carnegie UK’s Rural Action Research Programme. They developed a model of success based on six key elements; three ‘bedrock’ elements and three ‘operational’ elements.

The three bedrock elements were ‘need’, ‘people’ and ‘community’ support. In relation to people the study highlights:

Community-led solutions are not always the easiest way to provide facilities and deliver services. They are time consuming and require a high level of commitment and energy from those involved. However, the four case studies (in the study) demonstrate the ability to enthuse and involve individuals with a range of skill sets and form them into a dynamic group working for the community.

They argue that to be successful, community led enterprises need a group of people who have the right skills, commitment and an overall community interest. They need to assess their skill base and, if there are deficiencies, know how to address them. They need to be willing to work as a team and everyone in the organisation must be actively involved and not just there to make up the numbers. Individuals may bring a particular area of interest and knowledge but group loyalty to the overall need and objective is most important. Success is based on the whole community recognising the need and buying into the solution. The group’s ability to develop this is based on who they are and how they work together as people – a collective approach.


Leadership in community development projects.

Further afield, Onyx and Leonard (2010) studied five different community organisations in Australia, South America and Sweden. These were in small communities (less than 2000 people) that had developed a project with clear social or economic benefit. They identified seven key elements about leadership in successful projects:

Embedded. The mobilising leader/s were strongly embedded in formal and informal networks in their local area. They were trusted as people of integrity with the interests of the local area at heart.


Shared decisions. The leaders never took decisions alone. Decision making was shared and dispersed drawing on the ‘knowledge and initiative of many people’.


Open systems. The leaders appreciated the need to engage with other structures and with other places. They built bridges to the wider world to access knowledge, skills and resources.


Vision. Leaders had a broad vision of what was possible for the local community and were able to communicate it and how it might be achieved. The vision was not always about economic growth and included ecological sustainability and wellbeing.


Practical management skills. Leaders were aware the importance of establishing basic procedures and protocols. If they didn’t always have the skills themselves, they were able to bring them on board.


Succession planning. There was a plan to allow the original leadership to move on. This was sometimes by formal election processes or more organically as others developed skills.


Energy, commitment and perseverance. In all cases, leaders were crucial to maintaining optimism, energy and the search for solutions when the projects hit obstacles. This links to the idea that entrepreneurial practices are ‘driven by passion and joy’.

Onyx, J. and Leonard, R. J. (2010) Complex systems leadership in emergent community projects, Community Development Journal

Full text available at


Future Research Directions

Jackson et al (2018) look at the particular challenges and opportunities associated with creating leadership in social enterprises. They consider whether these are different given their different missions, contexts, legal forms, organisational structures and culture. The model they develop looks at six ‘p’s: person, position, process, performance, place and purpose. Based on this initial exploration they highlight five areas for future research to improve our understanding and practice of leadership in social enterprises.

  • A greater focus on leadership and entrepreneurship in social enterprise.
  • Examination of vertical and horizontal approaches to leadership in governance and accountability within social enterprises.
  • A shift from concentrating on individual skills/ traits to more collective cultural approaches to the challenges that social enterprises face.
  • Looking at how ‘place’ informs leadership in social enterprise.
  • Research on how leadership links to the need for social enterprises to sell their purpose/ mission to multiple stakeholders.


Jackson, B., Nicoll, M ad Roy, M.J. (2018). ‘The distinctive challenges and opportunities for creating leadership within social enterprises’. Social Enterprise Journal, 14:1.

Full text available at:


SR 19.2.20.


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