Although the seeds for participative management and collaborative leadership were planted in the marketplace years ago and have seen substantial growth in our organizations and institutions since, tending the garden of their evolution has been and is no easy task.

Stray roots of patriarchal traditions and lingering strands of autocratic, “power over” attitudes and practices continue to hamper efforts to cultivate collaborative workplace climates and are hard to weed out. But we continue to till and to fertilize the soil, digging deeper and uncovering obstacles, even as we seek simultaneously to harvest more of what we’ve discovered about what it means and what it takes to be a collaborative leader, and to put collaborative power to work.

What Is ‘Real Leadership?’

Some time ago a senior vice president of a major manufacturing firm asked me for advice in exploring what it would take to create “a high quality leadership development program” that he and his colleagues could install in their company. During the course of our conversations, I encouraged him to attend an introductory workshop in leader effectiveness. My hope was that by attending he could catch a glimpse of its approach to leadership and perhaps sense its potential for inclusion in any future plans as our discussions moved forward. He decided to go, and we agreed to talk after the workshop’s end to discuss his experience, and whether and how we might proceed.

It turned out that he liked the workshop, but he had a strongly felt reaction to the program’s identified subject matter: leader effectiveness. “I think that’s a misnomer – the workshop was mostly about relationships and interpersonal communication skills,” he said.

Citing the program’s emphasis on active listening, effective confrontation and conflict resolution, he categorized them all as “people skills stuff.” Although he believed the skills could be supportive of a leader’s performance, they were nevertheless subsidiary to … well, actually, he couldn’t say exactly to what, except that for him they were not “the real thing.” They were not “real” leadership skills.

The Default Presumption about Leadership in the Popular Mind

This isn’t the first time that a corporate executive or other organizational decision makers had drawn such a conclusion about this kind of workshop content. And it’s not surprising – for at least two reasons. One is that there’s a kind of default presumption in our society about leadership that’s firmly imprinted in the popular mind: Real leaders are charismatically aggressive, “take charge” persons who possess the “hard skills” of “getting things done.”

And what might those skills be? If we look in the direction of a study by Steve Kaplan of the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business, we can begin to get a clue. Kaplan, for his own purposes suggests that “hard skills” include behaviors associated with being fast, being aggressive, and demonstrating persistence and follow-through. Citing some of his research findings, he asserts that the most “impactful” features of leadership, these kinds of steady, quick-moving, take charge behaviors actually trump the so-called “soft skills” of being good listeners, consensus builders, staying open to criticism, demonstrating creativity and being team players.

Whether his intention or not (and I would suspect not), Kaplan’s conclusions nevertheless mesh well with, but unfortunately lend potential implicit support to the “default” stereotype of leadership and to those who believe (like the manufacturing company vice president) that “soft” interpersonal competencies are perhaps nice accessories to have, but are not what real leadership is all about.

Good News and Bad News for ‘Communication Skills’

But there’s a second reason why it’s not surprising that some corporate leaders and organizational decision makers conclude that relational and interpersonal skills are only subsidiary to what real leadership is about. Those who are advocates for or who conduct this kind of leadership training often actually package their presentations in a language that promotes such skills as active listening and effective confrontation primarily and precisely as communication skills, inadvertently inviting the impression that these are essentially ancillary, handy tools that can be added to a leader’s skill belt to be used in the right way at the right time to help improve both individual and team performance.

The good news is that those communication skills can indeed make a positive difference, there is research to verify it, and most organizational decision makers – like the vice president of the manufacturing company – support their use.

But the bad news is that something crucial is missing. For the vice president of manufacturing (and perhaps others like him), the question remains: What do these skills have to do with leadership?

Is the only answer, after all, that these soft skills are simply helpful add-ons passed along to us from the social sciences, good for helping leaders pay attention to peoples’ needs and for increasing participation, but in the last analysis remain subsidiary to the other so-called “impactful” actions of the hard driving “take charge/I’m in charge” leader? And is that why, for example, corporate leaders often send those subordinate to them to leader effectiveness workshops that focus on communication skills and seldom attend themselves? That is, because it’s not about “the real thing,” it’s “subordinate” to the real thing?

Meeting the Challenge: It’s not about the Skills

After years of facilitating leadership training workshops and pondering the “What’s real leadership?” question, I’ve developed the following point of view in response to such questions: Leadership is a way of being-in-action with others. It is a conscious exercise of human energy that has intention and purpose. It is, in fact, as Peter Block has said, “the process of translating intention into reality.” And it occurs – always – within the context of a world of interactions. In other words, it is “inherently a relational, communal process.”

Consequently, it’s not really about the skills. It’s about what drives them, what fuels them, what gives them life. And, what drives, fuels and gives them life is a transforming energy that some of us call collaborative power. Collaborative power is power with, not power over. And the communication skills are the vessels, the methods of action through which that power can be exercised and implemented.

Everything evolves, and what leadership is and what it means is no exception. It is who we are, and who and what we choose to be when we seek to join with others in shaping productive outcomes.