Leadership and the constellation

By Charlotte Finlay

The time for heroes in leadership is over.

Traditionally, the leadership literature landscape has heavily featured a dominant individual perspective: the hero leader figure. Even today, the understanding of leadership often ends up with a blurred distinction between hero and leader as leadership is still often perceived as an individual level phenomenon. But the time for heroes has been fading away and a new understanding of leadership is emerging. Leadership mustn’t be confused with a leader or set of leaders. Indeed, the two are very different. When we consider leadership, a leader may spring to our minds, yet leadership will rarely play out solely on an individual level; rather leadership is a complex and dynamic process.

This leads us to the question; how should we view leadership today? Let me introduce a new understanding of the phenomena to consider. Leadership is a collective, social process, best practiced in a constellation. In this context, the term constellation describes a group of leaders from the public, private, and third sectors of society to achieve a future goal. In Northern Ireland this plurality of leaders is needed given the complex challenges we face, but this leadership is also needed beyond Northern Ireland and across the globe.

I have been privileged to witness this leadership constellation in action over the last eight months, while observing and taking part in the CDPB’s Fellowship Programme, as part of my PhD research into cross-sectoral leadership. The programme brings leaders across Northern Ireland together, representing the different sectors of society, with leaders from business, politics, and the community and voluntary sector. These leaders have come together to work collectively, across sectors, to create change in Northern Ireland. The programme is underpinned by the spirit of possibility, which is what I have found to be true in watching collective leadership unfold over the last eight months.

In a recent interview one of the leaders shared their thoughts on leading with those from different sectors, and they posed these questions,

What is in the interest of the person opposite me? And is there a space that we can reach in between? Or instead of going off in parallel lines, can we create a perpendicular moment where we come together further down the line?

Leadership is a collective, social process and is therefore highly relational. Social Capital Theory is about the value of social networks. Put simply, it refers to the connections and the interactions between people. And these networks, connections, and interactions matter. Research tells us that good, strong Social Capital has enormous benefits on society, and how we fill the space that exists between us determines the strength of the Social Capital we build. Every day, we will experience leadership gaps. Where do these gaps exist? They exist between us as leaders and how we fill those gaps determines the strength of the Social Capital we build.

So, how do we avoid going off in parallel lines? How can we narrow the gap, reaching into the space between? Based on what I have observed through the Fellowship Programme this year, we narrow the gap by all of us showing up at the leadership table, choosing to participate in the constellation, and building relationships across sectors.

Collaborating well and solving complex societal problems requires a constellation of leaders, working together within a social process. To finish, I love this quote from Warren Bennis almost thirty years ago, who summarised this need for leadership and the constellation when he wrote:

None of us is as smart as all of us. In a society as complex and technologically sophisticated as ours, the most urgent projects require the coordinated contributions of many talented people. The richer the mix of people, the more likely that new connections will be made. We must recognise a new paradigm: not great leaders alone but great leaders who exist in a fertile relationship with a Great Group (Bennis, 1997, P. 202).

More is still to be discovered when it comes to cross-sectoral leadership, yet one thing remains true in the pursuit of a better leadership for the future, which encapsulates the reason for the Fellowship Programme; that “We came here to do something, together” (Godin, 2023).

To conclude, as leaders, let’s remember leadership is not found in leaders alone, but is found in a process of learning with others, for the greater good of society. Let’s consider leadership and the constellation. For in narrowing the gap, in this perpendicular moment, there lies a spirit of possibility for leadership today, tomorrow, and for the future.

Charlotte Finlay is a PhD candidate at Ulster University



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