Ahead of delivering a three day co-operative leadership course in the far east for the first time, our CEO Simon Parkinson gives us his thoughts on what qualities make a great co-operative leader and what characteristics distinguish co-operative leadership from other styles.

I am delighted that in our 100th year the Co-operative College is working with CLIMBS and CIFL to deliver a three day Co-operative leadership masterclass in Manila, Philippines.

So what is Co-operative leadership? There will be many views and different answers so I offer up the following as my perspective. Please do let me know what you think in the comments below.

Having an influence

Co-operative leadership isn’t about hierarchy.  It’s not about being the boss.  Co-operative leadership is a choice not a position. This means that everyone can make the choice to be a co-operative leader. So if we make the choice to be a co-operative leader, how do we give ourselves the best chance of having a positive influence?

We are an international co-operative movement built on values and therefore we need to ensure that our leadership approaches start from a positively intended set of values. Too often the temptation is to start work on the visible behaviours expected of a leader. Whilst these are important and need honing over time, they are the tip of the iceberg in terms of who we are as individuals.

Our values are like the hidden mass of the iceberg under the surface.  Understanding what is important to each of us, and being prepared to accept and work with people who see things differently is the key to a values based leadership approach.

Putting it into practice

At the College this is where we start our programmes. We spend time exploring the values which are important to us as individuals before trying to establish commonality across different values for the group.  This provides a shared starting point, which we return to throughout our programmes. 

We also spend time working through our individual preferences and getting comfortable with how these preferences can drive our interactions with others. Understanding our natural preferences and realising that there are times when we may need to work against our own preferences for the common good is an important piece of learning.

The importance of self awareness

Building self awareness and having a healthy mix of self-confidence and humility provides a strong base for anyone making the choice to take on a co-operative leadership challenge.

However, co-operative leadership does not happen in a vacuum.  By design, co-operatives are intended to act as positive disruptors where existing markets and solutions are failing the majority of people. This means co-operative leaders are often operating in what are increasingly referred to as VUCA environments. Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity are the growing norm in many situations, requiring a co-operative solution.

Being able to adapt in these situations and identify the real challenges is the second key strength of the modern co-operative leader.

Not trying to have all the answers

Gone are the days (if they ever really existed) of the hero leader with all the answers.  The command and control approaches associated with this form of leadership have never sat easily with the Co-operative movement and are increasingly redundant in the fast changing VUCA environments of today.  

The ability of co-operative leaders to serve and guide the people around them in understanding the issues they face, and responding to this issues collectively, all are vital to success for today’s co-operative movement. Co-operative leaders do not command and control, they convene and call to action!

This adaptive form of leadership draws heavily on the work of Ronald Heifetz.  The title of his seminal book, Leadership without easy answers, captures this perfectly. So in trying to answer the question of what is co-operative leadership a combination of the above leads us to a vales based adaptive leadership approach.

A lifelong journey

Co-operative leadership is a lifelong journey of discovery. A journey on which you develop and hone your own skills, knowledge and values whilst learning from everyone you meet along the way.

I look forward to working with colleagues in Manila over the next three days and exploring together where our journey will take us.

Are you interested in developing your leadership skills? The why not take a look at our range of CMI Qualifications via the button below.

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