Collective Leadership: A New Way To Lead in the Age of Sustainability

Contributed by Susan Camberis

Just as we’re seeing the emergence of new business models to address social, environmental, and economic challenges, so too are new leadership models beginning to emerge.

One such model was discussed on the Our Spheres of Influence Fall 2015 Virtual Fireside Chat. Collective Leadership: Harnessing “Human Systems” for Innovation featured three global experts who spoke about the model, its origins, and how companies are putting it to use with impressive results.

What is Collective Leadership?

Collective leadership refers to empowering individuals to step forward and lead when their strengths are most needed by the team. Very different from a traditional ‘command and control’ approach, collective leadership is more agile and seeks to connect people through shared purpose.

The original creative impulse for collective leadership grew out of Roelien Bokxem’s experiences in the financial sector in 2008 in the Netherlands, after witnessing government bailouts of institutions that no one ever imagined could need rescuing. Roelien and PresenceAtWork co-founder, Jane Weber (Autstralia), realized that one leader acting alone couldn’t have changed the outcome, and what was needed was a leadership paradigm shift, geared more toward teams and organizations.

As described by moderator Melissa O’Mara (U.S.), Founder of i3Activate and a collective leadership practitioner and trainer, leveraging the strength of the collective is especially relevant for sustainability work – where all functions have a role to play and important ideas can come from anywhere.

Collective leadership is based on three key principles:

1. Balance the ‘Doing’ and ‘Being’ of Leadership. This first principle is really about balance. According to Philippe Wits, former CEO of Ardanta (Netherlands) and current Director of Life Insurance at ASR, a global insurance company and pioneer of collective leadership, balance in leadership “doing” and “being” means bringing out the best in people.

2. Capitalize on Collective Leadership through System Dynamics. According to Roelien, the second principle is about leading from the whole versus the old ‘command and control’ paradigm, which wastes a lot of time. Systems awareness is key. In order for everyone to feel comfortable stepping forward, sometimes the formal leader needs to step back and simply offer support and encouragement. It’s a very different way of leading.

Philippe added, with collective leadership, it’s okay for the leader to say, “I don’t know,” but this can be difficult at first – especially when others don’t want to step forward. What’s critical is creating an environment where people know they matter. “People think they don’t matter. If you think that, you have no impact.”

3. Leading from the Emerging Future vs. The Past. For Roelien this principal is about “connecting the dots together versus being on a straight-line path.” Practically, this means balancing strategy and milestones alongside agile, unattached thinking.

How is collective leadership working in practice?

Philippe has led the adoption of collective leadership at ASR. The journey began with his leadership team committing to three 3-day retreats. Initially people were anxious about collective leadership and what it meant, but when leaders really “got it”, people started to realize who they really were and what they could contribute. Some of the biggest benefits of collective leadership are deeper connections, increased interpersonal safety, and greater independence.

According to Roelien, in a recent case study with Ardanta, in which the team interviewed all levels in the organization— including the CEO— implementing collective leadership in conjunction with lean principles has yielded productivity increases as high as 66%. The pervasive feeling expressed at all levels in the organization was a recognition that, “I’m okay and I feel confident stepping forward to lead.”

“Often people have forgotten how great they are,” according to Philippe. It takes a lot of confidence to really step forward. “When you feel okay with yourself, you tend to want to put yourself out there.”

What can sustainability leaders do to begin implementing the collective leadership principles? 

Work with your natural strengths. One of the tools used in collective leadership is a body-based strengths system – a shortcut to think about your own strengths during change. Melissa asked participants to consider the question: What role do you most naturally play in a change initiative?

Melissa suggested looking at that question through the lens of the following strengths:

I pilot ideas quickly
I connect people in a way that’s fun
I energize and inspire
I validate what’s feasible
I analyze all options and facts
I bring the vision of what’s possible (“stir the pot”)
I bring lots of practical ideas
I deliver on time
I keep harmony on the team

We each have skills and strengths in these various roles. When we’re more aware of where our strengths lie, and our environment supports bringing our strengths forward, we can lead more easily when the group needs us to ‘step up.’

Go slow to go fast. According to Roelien, one of the biggest things you can do is to allow yourself to slow down when making connections. The idea is to ‘go slow to go fast.’ For example, you might take the first hour of a 2-hour meeting to check-in and really connect with how people how are feeling, but the hour that follows is much more productive because everyone is present and fully engaged.

Focus on connection. As described by Philippe, “When I come into the office, I take a deep breath. I ask people, ‘How are you? How are you, really?’ I ask with no agenda, just be curious.” Philippe also spends more time just noticing and reflecting what he observes. For example, if he notices someone talking very quickly, he may say something like, “I notice that you are talking very fast. Are you okay?”

From an HR development perspective, I see collective leadership as a compelling combination of philosophies that leaders may recognize from participative and servant leadership models. In a day and age when we need to collectively engage with and solve harder problems through teams, it’s a model that sustainability leaders will benefit from understanding and integrating into their own practices. It also aligns with what employees say they want more of from their organizations, specifically greater purpose at work.

To listen to the full audio— with video for the first time (!)–  of our Winter 2015 global conversation, click here:

To learn more about collective leadership, connect with Melissa and PresenceAtWork on Twitter @melissaomara or LinkedIn:

PresenceAtWork is also kicking-off an Allies training program for Collective Leadership in February 2016. Here’s a link where you can learn more and register:

About the author:

Susan Camberis is a talent management and HR leader, recognized for her passion for learning and sustainability. She currently serves as the Vice President of Learning and Organizational Development for Executive Coaching Connections, a Chicago-based firm specializing in leadership solutions, team development, and organization effectiveness. From 1999 to 2013, Susan held various HR roles with Baxter, whose commitment to sustainability spans more than three decades.

Susan is completing a Leadership in Sustainability Management certificate from the University of Chicago’s Graham School. Her capstone research is focused on ways to enhance cross-functional communication between HR and Sustainability teams.

Susan created and moderates the open LinkedIn Group Leading Talent Sustainability, and her writing has been appeared in GreenBiz,, and PBS Next Avenue. Follow Susan on Twitter @susancamberis or connect with her on LinkedIn

December 16, 2015 at 12:06 am Leave a comment

Join Us 12/2 – Collective Leadership: Harnessing “Human Systems” for Innovation

Spheres of Influence
Fall 2015 Virtual Fireside Chat

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2015
noon-1pm ET/11am-noon CT/ 9am-10am PT

Collective Leadership:
Harnessing “Human Systems” for Innovation

Featured Global Guests:

Melissa O’Mara
Founder, i3Activate
Previously a sustainability leadership catalyst at Smart Cities and IBM

Roelien Bokxem
co-founder of PresenceAtWork (Netherlands)

Philippe Wits
Former CEO of Ardanta (Netherlands)
CurrentDirector of Life Insurance at ASR
a global insurance company & pioneer of collective leadership

About Melissa O’Mara:
Melissa O’Mara’s mission is to maximize institutional and cultural response to environmental and economic challenges through activating teams and communities of purpose, accelerating public/private collaboration and innovation, and enabling collective leadership. She founded i3Activate, LLC, as a platform for transforming the way we lead organizations and address today’s complex challenges.

Prior to founding i3Activate, LLC, Melissa was an intrepreneurial corporate leader with 28 years of experience at US Smart Cities, Andersen Consulting, Schneider Electric, and IBM.

About Philippe Wits:
Philippe Wits of the Netherlands is former Director/CEO of Ardanta, a global life insurance company and a pioneer of collective leadership. He currently serves as Director of Life Insurance at ASR. Philippe is focused on continuous improvement through lean and collective leadership to empower employees to reach their full potential, as well as reach the company’s and their own goals. ​

About Roelien Bokxem:
Based in the Netherlands with background in the Financial Sector, Roelien Bokxem​ is co-founder of PresenceAtWork. She is a certified coach and systems consultant with broad experience delivering experiential learning for executives and teams. She finds pride and joy in co-designing PresenceAtWork’s co​llective leadership​ curriculum.
Listen to Melissa and Roelien here on this podcast. Check out the first 15 minutes in particular. (The start button is on the upper left.)


We hope you can join us for this participatory event!

November 26, 2015 at 12:39 am Leave a comment

The VW Betrayal: The SilverLEAF Chronicles 7

Contributed by Dr. Sarah

“I feel tainted” says my beau, who owns a VW diesel Golf. He’d been proud to drive that car. He enjoyed it’s sportiness, but appreciated its (promised) clean-burning engine.

He bought the car shortly before he and I got involved. His pride in the green-ness of the car increased when he got involved with me– my passionate investment in reducing our collective ecological impact for the sake of our children has rubbed off on him a bit.

Now, my beau does not anger easily. In fact, he’s an exceptionally even-tempered person. And he’s not obsessed with all-things-environmental– unlike me!

But he feels that he’s now branded by his polluting car as someone who doesn’t care about the ecological impact of his car.

Millions of VW diesels have been sold around the world to unsuspecting people. Some of them– not all– cared a lot about the purported low emissions of their cars.

It’s about excess global warming pollution, and immediate harm to our health as well. An AP study estimated that as many as 94 people in the US alone may have died in the last 7 years as a result of the VW excess emissions. In Europe, where most of the diesels have been sold, the health impacts and deaths are estimated to be greater because of the greater population density. Our health has been damaged.

More than once since the VW fraud story broke, I’ve been glad that I drive a car for which the emissions can’t be faked– because there are no emissions.

I don’t feel branded as a polluter when I drive TheSilverLEAF. But it’s not fair to VW diesel drivers that they should be tarnished.

The Volkswagen betrayal goes beyond deceiving car buyers– and the EPA. It’s a betrayal of our social contract to protect the natural world so that future generations can thrive. Our children have been betrayed.

October 12, 2015 at 7:23 pm Leave a comment

Our NissanLEAF Skips the Vacation Trip to Taliesin- SilverLeaf Chronicles 6

Contributed by Dr. Sarah

The SilverLeaf was lonely this year when we went on vacation. Again.

Last year we drove to Ohio from Chicago in a rental. This year we drove to the home and studio of the original “organic” architect, Frank Lloyd Wright— Taliesin East— in Spring Green, Wisconsin. In a rental minivan.

Taliesin East - Frank Lloyd Wright's home and studio, Spring Green, WI

Taliesin East – Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio, Spring Green, WI

The all–electric NissanLEAF could have made it to our launch point for the visit, charming Mineral Point, Wisconsin. In theory.

Downtown Mineral Point, WI

Downtown Mineral Point, WI

After all, it’s only 168 miles from Chicago to historic arts community of Mineral Point. And NissanLEAFs have been known to take go as far as 120 miles on a charge. And some drivers have taken trips of over 1000 miles–– with stops to charge along the way, of course.

But… with two restless boys in the backseat, I didn’t want to hassle with stopping to charge. And we were four adults— including my mom who is less hardy these days— in addition to those two young men in the back. There’s no way to squeeze that many bodies in the hatchback LEAF. Hence, the rental of the minivan. This is what I call “eco reality.”

My mom had been longing to see Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin since she was in college. I was delighted to fulfill that dream for her. And thrilled to learn about not just Frank Lloyd Wright’s remarkable design vision, but his pioneering commitment to sustainable design and architecture.

Here we see his creative re-purposing of gas pipes that were no longer needed as pipes once Taliesin had converted to electricity.

Gas pipes repurposed as a trellace and painted in Wright's signature red

Gas pipes repurposed as a trellace and painted in Wright’s signature red

And about two decades before the region had gone electric, Wright brought electricity to his home and studio by creating hydropower from a small dam he created on his property.

How do I feel about the cost of renting a minivan for our vacation? Fine. The rental cost was about what I used to spend on gas in four months. I now have a modest monthly lease payment, no maintenance costs, and I pay about $15 a month for the electricity to run the 100% electric NissanLEAF.

What about the eco footprint of renting that minivan? For the entire trip we emitted about 235 pounds of CO2 (or “global warming pollution”). You can calculate your own car’s “carbon footprint” just as I did.  I can live with emitting a couple hundred pounds of CO2 in order to drive a car the rest of the year that saves over 8000 pounds of emissions a year. Just as I can live with The SilverLeaf being lonely while we go on vacation.

P.S. I loved Mineral Point, WI so much that I went back a couple of weeks later with my sweetie. We loved it so much that we’re going back in the fall for an art tour. And my extended family may gather again there next summer.

This is where my beau and I stayed:

The Miner's Cottage in Mineral Point, WI

The Miner’s Cottage in Mineral Point, WI

September 3, 2015 at 8:08 pm Leave a comment

Climate Change Prompts Transdisciplinary Curriculum & Cross-School Collaboration

Contributed by Dr. Sarah

The essential question posed in our Summer 2015 virtual fireside chat was Does climate change “change everything” in higher education and beyond? The answer, from various vantage points, was a resounding “Yes.”

We had a far ranging conversation that even touched upon the profound reality that climate change  changes our sense of time.

Professor Richard Rood set the stage for the conversation. Professor Rood, a climate scientist at University of Michigan who teaches multidisciplinary courses on climate impacts and adaptation, painted a picture of a world in which we are not only seeing droughts and extreme weather events, but severe wild fires in unlikely spots such as Alaska.

Professor Nancy Tuchman, founding Director of Loyola University’s Institute of Environmental Sustainability in Chicago, reminded us that climate change threatens the security and stability of our food system as well– a reality, I would add, that is likely to touch all of our lives to varying degrees, particularly those living in poverty.

Climate change represents not just a threat but an opportunity for new models for innovation and collaboration, however. Professor Tuchman shared the story of how a student-driven enterprise at Loyola to reduce food waste and fossil fuel use has led to Loyola working with other schools, such as Northwestern University and University of Illinois-Chicago, to use waste grease from their kitchens to run campus buses. Such projects not only reduce climate impacts and afford hands-on learning for students, but forge new alliances that can wield more effective levers for necessary collective change to tackle climate change. The sphere of influence of each institution expands by virtue of such collaborations.

Professor Joel Towers, Executive Dean of the Parsons School of Design at The New School in New York, spoke to meta-level effects on our sense of place and time. As a psychologist, I was particularly struck by his remarks about our sense of time being disrupted when what have historically been “100 year storms” become frequent occurrences. Climate change can disorient us.

Professor Towers remarked upon how the urgency of climate change is driving Parsons to a transdisciplinary approach to pedagogy, again underscoring how climate change can crack open new possibilities that may yield benefits beyond environmental sustainability.

Listen here to the conversation among these thoughtful experts about what I call the need to prepare the next generation to work, live and lead in a hot, crowded world:






August 12, 2015 at 9:56 pm Leave a comment

7/29 Does Climate Change “Change Everything”? Implications for Higher Ed & Beyond


Does Climate Change “Change Everything”?
Implications for Higher Ed & Beyond 

Wednesday, July 29th, 2015 
12pm-1pm  ET / 11am-noon CT / 9am-10am PT

Featured Guests: 

Richard Rood (UMich) 

Joel Towers (The New School) 

Nancy Tuchman (Loyola-Chicago) 

About Richard Rood: 

Professor of Atmospheric, Oceanic & Space Sciences at the University of Michigan
Dow Sustainability Distinguished Faculty Fellow

Professor Rood’s primary research interest is in the interface of climate change with all aspects of society.

Professor Rood will set the stage for the conversation by reviewing what the science indicates about what will change and how as a result of global climate change.
READ his writings on the impacts of climate change here:

About Nancy Tuchman:
Founding Director, Institute of Environmental Sustainability, Loyola Unversity Chicago
Professor Tuchman is a visionary in the realm of sustainability in higher ed, with clear insights into how we can use the educational, operational and research engines of higher education to move the climate change needle. 

A biologist by training, Professor Tuchman’s specializations include Global Climate Change and Human Impacts. 

Thanks in part to Professor Tuchman’s vision, Loyola University Chicago has been ranked the greenest university in the Midwest in the Sierra Club’s annual ranking.
About Joel Towers:
Executive Dean, Parsons The New School for Design
Towers has led the design and development of cutting-edge programs, curricular innovation, and the implementation of a new, more inclusive governance structure. 
He also serves as an Associate Professor of Architecture and Sustainable Design.

Read about Dean Towers’ campus-wide climate initiative in the New York Times:
REGISTER HERE for this FREE online event:

We hope you can join us for the conversation! Come with questions and ideas!

July 10, 2015 at 12:03 am Leave a comment

The Good, Bad & the Ugly: My LEAF at 1 Year: SilverLEAF Chronicles 5

Contributed by Dr. Sarah

A year ago I made the leap I’d been promising to take by buying the greenest car I could afford: I bought the all-electric NissanLEAF, and launched the SilverLEAF Chronicles blog series.

The SilverLEAF is celebrating its first birthday with our family.

Now that we’ve weathered a summer and a (hard) Chicago winter, here are my honest reflections on what I love — and what I would change if I were Nissan.

What I love about the NissanLEAF:

1. It’s green

First and foremost, I love what I expected to love, it’s green-ness.

I now drive knowing that the eco impact of my car is minimal. In my previous Toyota Avalon, I used to plan my trips carefully and take mass transit when I could.

The LEAF car has no emissions. None.

My passion for living green– and voting green– is inspired by my love for my two young kids. Driving this car is an act of fierce love. As a parent, that feels good.

2. The cost

Between tax rebates and no cost for gas, this car pretty much pays for itself.

You can get a top of the line LEAF for around $300 a month, and basic model for around $200 a month.

And you never pay for gas. Ever.

I charge at home about half the time, and the electric bills have not gone up noticeably.

And, the car is virtually maintenance-free– no oil to change, no belts to replace.

I’ve met LEAF owners who say that they pay less per month to own a LEAF than they paid for gas in their conventional car.

From a sheer cost standpoint, it’s a no-brainer.

3. It’s sporty

The SilverLEAF is peppy! I test drove the Prius, and it was sluggish.

For reasons having to do with electric motor technology, the LEAF has a lot of pick up. And it handles well. It’s fun to drive!

I met a LEAF owner who said he feels like he’s driving a sports car.

My ten-year-old son thinks it looks cool, too!

4. LEAFs build community

When LEAF owners pass each other on the road, we wave at each other.

We talk to each other when we run into each other, sharing stories about the car.

I had no idea I would be joining a community when I got this car. It’s an unexpected perk!

What I would change about the NissanLEAF:

1. The engine sound

In a state of nature, an electric motor is silent. Wisely, Nissan has added a high pitched tone that is emitted when the car is driving under 15 MPH to cue pedestrians that a car is coming.

The problem is, it doesn’t sound like a car motor, so pedestrians wander out in front of it without looking. (There are other reasons at this point in history, having to do with things like walking into the street on our SmartPhones!)

I get why Nissan would want it’s electric car to have a unique sound that differentiates it from a gas powered car.

But this is a safety matter.

2. The battery range

We’ve driven this car– without stopping to charge–close to 100 miles (on its first day with us!)

If you learn how to drive very efficiently, which I’m still working on, it can be driven well over 100 miles.

Longer battery range would make it work more readily beyond local driving, which would be great. Some of us suffer from “range anxiety,” especially when we’re having to run either heat or air conditioning, which drain the battery.

I hear that Nissan– and other companies– are working on new battery technology which will give it about 30% greater range. That will be wonderful.

Would I buy a NissanLEAF again?

Absolutely. I plan to swap out my current leased NissanLEAF for the new model in two years– when longer battery range comes on line.

Happy Birthday, SilverLEAF!





June 29, 2015 at 8:16 pm Leave a comment

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