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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Leadership and integrity

By Dominic O’Reilly, Fellow Class of 2021

I was reminded of the etymology of the word integrity when I discussed flooding in Downpatrick, County Down, with my dad in November of last year. It comes from the Latin integrum, which means to stay intact, or remain whole.

Questions were swirling over how small, family run businesses who were affected by the flooding would survive. Even if the flood water had been drained, the structural integrity of the building and roads surrounding may have been affected. They wouldn’t be able to hold together, or hold their own weight, without breaking.

I thought about applying the same criteria to people, and to leaders. Our integrity is tested in times of difficulty and challenge, in times of flooding. Our ability to withstand the internal and external pressures without buckling is an accurate measurement of our mettle.

But how often do we think about integrity, about how we would remain intact? It would be foolish for those in leadership positions to take a wait and see approach. To only realise just how resilient their integrity is when tested. We often see that leaders (whether in business, politics, or civic society) who do take this approach buckle, unable to withstand pressure when tested; so-called great leaders no longer.

This cycle of leadership is often taken as an inevitable part of life. But I believe that those who assume a leadership role should be continuously assessing their integrity: their ability to withstand. This requires a considerable level of introspection and self-awareness, and is often measured through our interactions with others. Integrity is found in how we respond to challenging conversations, in our desire to grow, and in the criticism which we may face.

Leaders should not call all the shots or make all the decisions themselves, however. The weight of the world does not rest solely on their shoulders. Leaders should not be isolated or lonely, but rather help others develop and foster leadership in others. Of course, there will be moments when a leader must make a decision for themselves, but in those challenging times we find that our leadership skills are strengthened as we go through a period of soul-searching.

Just as the pilgrim Dante was helped by Virgil in his quest through hell, a structurally sound leader needs the help of others. Virgil acted not only as a guide, but also as a teacher, a voice of reason, and at times, a critic.

In connecting with our community, in depending on them for help and guidance, we become better leaders. We should find inspiration in previous leadership, learning from their mistakes, and continue to teach the next generation. Perhaps this is the greatest test of any leader’s integrity: knowing when to pass the mantle on.

In passing on their own knowledge, a leader leaves the stage with their integrity intact. And they will be held in high regard by future generations. Just as Dante viewed Virgil. Just as I view my dad.

If we can learn from those who guide us, and the difficulties we face – whether they be floods, a political party in decline, or a school struggling to budget – we too can pass through hell like Dante, and emerge with our integrity intact: “pure and disposed to mount unto the stars.”

By Dominic O’Reilly, Fellow Class of 2021


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CDPB announces its blog series Leadership And

In this first blog we introduce the series Leadership And, answering why robust guidance for leadership in 2024 is more important than ever.

Leaders push forward in times of complexity

We find ourselves in a cultural moment of complexity and uncertainty as domestic and global challenges continue to mount with no end in sight, four of which stand out. First, it is a critical year for climate change as TIME has named 2024 the year for exponential climate action.

Second, the increase of conflict worldwide is unavoidable, with conflict prevention expert Paul Stares stating, “the trend toward less armed conflict around the world is now moving in the opposite direction.” Whether it is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or the war and humanitarian crisis in Gaza, leadership is required more than ever.

Another precarious challenge is the economy. Economists anticipate the global economy to weaken in 2024, and accompanied with a cost of living crisis at home threatening the most vulnerable in society, the decisions made by our leaders from across society – not just in parliamentary chambers and executive tables – will echo for generations to come.

Finally, democracy itself appears to be in crisis. This year has been dubbed the year of voting, with more than two billion people around the world heading to the polls in 2024. Quite simply it is the biggest election year in history. And yet, democracy has never felt so fragile; it seems to be on the ballot itself. Research from Our World in Data recently published statistics that suggest democracy is backsliding at a substantial rate. Moreover, published data shows that the number of democratic states worldwide has fallen, fewer people are living in democracies, and people have fewer democratic rights.

In light of these challenges, leaders are being scrutinised more than ever as their character and competency are consistently called into question from various corners of society. According to research from Jon Stokes and Sue Dopson at the Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, trust in leadership is at an all-time low and leaders must prove themselves in order to gain respect.

This is the moment for leaders to step up and not bend the knee to the challenges facing all of us. In these uncertain times, healthy and constructive leadership must be parsed out to steer us to calmer waters and push forward. We need pioneering leaders that actively take steps towards a better future through addressing the issues of the present through innovation and cooperation.

The aim of Leadership And

At the Centre for Democracy and Peace Building (CDPB), we believe in eco-leadership: leadership that focuses on the collective, that does not withhold knowledge, and instead chooses to empower communities by encouraging information sharing. Research by Dopson and Stokes sums it up perfectly: “Leadership is a conversation, a way of talking about things with people, at all levels, within and beyond.” We do not hope with this series to prescribe answers. Rather we aim to facilitate creative thinking within a broader audience. Leadership is about equipping a collective to seek innovative solutions to complex problems. By providing in-depth leadership guidance from experts, CDPB hopes to develop leaders’ capacity and foster a positive culture of connectedness in which we all can work together to solve issues and lead better.

Over the next few months, the Leadership And series will curate adept opinions on various facets of leadership, creating an accessible, intertwined database of lived experience and science from leaders from across the globe. We will look at topics such as leadership and integrity, leadership and dignity, and leadership and complexity. In our commitment to diversity of opinion, we will invite friends and associates of CDPB who possess an extensive track record of leadership to join the series as a guest writer and share their insights.

Leadership is not prescriptive and by examining many opinions we open ourselves up to new creative forms of thinking.

We look forward to having you on this journey with us.

The CDPB team


“Chief Economists Outlook: January 2024.” World Economic Forum, 15 Jan. 2024.

“Countries That Are Democracies and Autocracies.” Our World in Data.

“Electoral Democracy Index.” Our World in Data.

Herre, Bastian. “The World Has Recently Become Less Democratic.” Our World in Data, 6 Sept. 2022.

“People Living in Democracies and Autocracies.” Our World in Data.

Ray, Siladitya. “2024 Is the Biggest Election Year in History—Here Are the Countries Going to the Polls This Year.” Forbes, 3 Jan. 2024.

Stares, Paul. “Conflicts to Watch in 2024.” Council on Foreign Relations, 4 Jan. 2024.

Stokes, J., and S. Dopson. “From Ego to Eco, Leadership for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.” (2020).

Tubiana, Laurence, and Catherine McKenna. “2024 Must Be the Year for Exponential Climate Action.” TIME, 16 Jan. 2024.


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