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Deep Collaboration as a Tool to Liberate Your Leadership

Walter R Jacobs explores what it means to go beyond paying lip service to collaboration, and how to navigate resistance to sharing power.


Liberated Leadership is a new paradigm in which the leader invites the people they serve as well as those they supervise around the table to design an ambitious future together. It is a courageous stance that encourages collaboration and creates a sense of belonging with people at all levels of the organization. However, collaboration and belonging can mean different things to different stakeholders. In fact, “collaboration” is often an overused buzzword in higher education. Everyone says that they collaborate with others to co-create initiatives, but top-down decisions are still very much the norm in colleges and universities around the globe. Also, entrenched policies and practices limit effective shared governance, even when administrators are not reluctant to share the power to set agendas and determine priorities. “Deep collaboration” is rare, but when practiced it can preclude passivity and lack of ownership, and foster belonging at all levels.

The key to any form of collaboration for a leader is to get input from others. A shallow collaboration is when the leader then ignores the input or minimizes it. How can we enable a more profound form of collaboration? I developed a process for this in higher education, over nine years as a dean and a year and a half as a provost and vice president for academic affairs.


There are four elements in my system of deep collaboration:

  1. The leader gets input from others. As noted above, everyone does this in all forms of collaboration.

  2. The objective is to find our vision and pathways instead of the leader’s vision and pathways. This is a major dividing line between shallow and deep collaboration.

  3. The leader creates structures that facilitate feedback and edits based on feedback.

  4. The team uses an iterative decision-making process: discussion is held, a proposed plan of action is drafted, the draft plan is discussed, the plan is edited based on feedback, and then additional discussions and edits are conducted as needed before the plan is finalized.


Let’s take a closer look at each element.

  • Get input from others.

    • Who provides input? is a question that liberated leaders often revisit to make sure that they are inclusive. They seek input on multiple levels –  individual, small group, and large group – and invite stakeholders to share ideas about key issues to discuss and act on.

    • How do you get input? We receive it verbally and in written formats.

    • What types of constraints could you encounter? We should consider issues such as tight time frames, and various levels of trust among team members. 

  • Find the team’s vision and pathways instead of the leader’s vision and pathways.

    • Liberated leaders explicitly state that this is the objective.

    • Humor can help. For example, I like to state that I’m like the first President George Bush, and don’t get “the vision thing.” But this is not because I lack vision, it’s because it’s more important for a vision to emerge in extensive discussion instead of me presenting it from on high.

  • Is it ever OK to exclude folks from the discussion?

    • Sometimes there are situations where you may need to invite those with privilege and power to take a back seat. While you don’t want to exclude people completely, liberated leaders may want to consider how to filter some voices that stifle the voices of others. For example, in a strategic planning session where faculty gathered to discuss a draft plan, an associate dean and I seated full professors with a history of “we don’t do that” views at a table to discuss objections among themselves without cowing assistant professors into silence; faculty who were more open to new ideas were seated at different tables.

  • Use an iterative decision-making process: listen, draft a plan, discuss the draft plan, edit the plan, have more discussions and edits, then finalize the plan.

    • How much time do you give for the process? This varies based on the situation.

    • How do you make the final decision? Who makes it? Explicitly assigning “decision rights” can be a powerful step. The Conscious Leadership Group succinctly describes the process here.

  • Create structures that facilitate feedback and revisions based on feedback.

    • This is the process that’s probably the most unfamiliar to new and experienced leaders alike. In the next section I’ll provide an explanation and examples.


From 2007 through 2012 I was a department chair in the humanities and social sciences college at a large midwestern university, where the 31 department chairs participate in two college governance structures: the Council of Chairs (CoC); and the Chairs, Executives, Deans, and Directors meeting. The CoC is a meeting of just the chairs without any deans present. As the CoC vice chair and then chair, I met regularly with the dean to share concerns and propose solutions, and had the opportunity to encourage the council to take on a proactive role rather than only reacting to requests for feedback. 


When I moved to a small midwestern university as the dean of the social sciences and education college I replicated that structure. It was a disaster! The chairs resisted my efforts for them to meet as a council, and after the second meeting I disbanded it. When the chairs met with me and my associate dean, they just took direction from me. The vibe pretty much was, “You take care of things at the college level and leave us alone in the departments.” I learned something from this experience: sometimes deep collaboration is not possible based on the culture of the institution.


My approach was much more successful when I was the dean of the social sciences college at a west coast state university, where the culture of participatory governance was much stronger. The college’s governance structure when I arrived was the “Policy Committee” of department chairs and members of the dean’s office. It met twice a month, primarily for the chairs to receive directions from the dean. I replaced that with a once-a-month meeting of the Council of Chairs and the Dean Group (CCDG), where we deployed the four elements of deep collaboration. In a separate monthly Council of Chairs meeting the chairs met without any of the dean’s office staff present. The CoC was a space where the chairs could meet to discuss issues without worrying about what the dean thought. The chairs brought great ideas to the CCDG, and in the CoC they shared ideas and best practices to help each other be successful. 


I built another deep collaboration structure at the west coast university with administrators and staff. Every other week I convened meetings of the “Extended Dean Team”: the Dean Team plus the Chair of the Council of Chairs, the Director of Development (the college’s fundraiser), and the Director of the Student Advising Center. As was the case with the Council of Chairs and the Dean Group, the Dean Team and Extended Dean Team meetings were spaces where we collectively generated ideas and extensively discussed possible pathways forward until we reached consensus.


What are the challenges of deep collaboration within hierarchical organizations that expect more of a command-and-control assertive leadership style? There are three broad dynamics to note. First, there are pressures to limit the scope of conversations: The leader is asked to discuss options for a decision with just a few trusted colleagues, or to make the decision without consultation. In deep collaboration we seek input from a wide range of stakeholders. Second, there are pressures to limit the time frame of conversations: The leader is expected to make decisions quickly. Deep collaboration, in contrast, thrives in the deliberate generation and discussion of multiple drafts of possible plans, which takes time to operationalize. 


Third, there are expectations for the leader to use an equality lens instead of an equity lens when making decisions: Everyone must be treated the same, which often leads to the lowest common denominator being used instead of being sensitive to the differential needs of stakeholders. For example, in one of my deanships the tenured and tenure track faculty all received an equal allocation of funds for travel to conferences. I wanted to eliminate the allocation to tenure-track faculty, as they all had extensive start-up packages that covered conference travel. The allocation to each tenured faculty member could then be increased, and we could also start a new fund to help faculty with special challenges such as restarting research after administrative appointments. This plan was initially thought to be too divisive and disruptive to the college’s culture. In an unrelated development, I moved on to a new opportunity shortly after the plan was initially rejected, but would have continued to work with stakeholders to refine the idea and eventually implement it.


In sum, liberated leaders strive to create multiple spaces for deep collaboration, which includes ideas brought to them in addition to thoughts that they have to share. All members of the team work together to confront the challenges that emerge when the status quo is changed. Collaboration doesn’t just bubble out of a vacuum, however; we create structures to make it happen. Liberated leaders must have the confidence and courage to invite the people they serve as well as those they supervise around the table to co-design a bold future together. Deep collaboration tools help us get there.


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Walter R. Jacobs, Ph.D. has been on the faculty of public state universities since the summer of 1999. He served as a department chair for five years at his first institution, a college dean at two other universities for nine years (two years at the first institution, and seven at the second), and the provost and vice president for academic affairs for a year and a half at a fourth university. He is currently a full professor of ethnic studies, and the interim co-executive director of a non-profit organization that uses innovative story development practices and participatory media methods to support people in sharing personal narratives rooted in their own life experiences.

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