What is Facilitative Leadership?June 12, 2014

Facilitative leadership is one of the emerging leadership paradigms making its way into more and more organizations, governments and institutions. It is a co-creative leadership model asserting that leaders should effectively facilitate deep collaboration. Deep collaboration means the parties involved—all of them, including the leader—undergo transformations through the work they are engaging. In short, groups undergo what Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government lecturer and founder of the Center for Public Leadership, Ronald Heifez, calls “adaptive changes.” This means development is a central part of leadership.

To be clear here, Facilitative Leadership does not get rid of hierarchical forms of leadership and management. Contrary to popular opinion, it does the opposite. Hierarchy thrives within facilitative leadership. It thrives because pre-existing hierarchies are no longer rigidly in command. As leadership capacity develops beyond traditional hierarchies resting upon position, a new form of hierarchy emerges. A more effective form. Organic and responsive hierarchies come forth—they emerge—and are subservient to the most proficient and creative outcomes. Role and position no longer exclusively distribute power. Now, capability does. And as any seasoned leader will tell you, innovation and productivity have powerful agendas that challenge us to transform ourselves into more adaptive and responsive human beings. Rest assured, if you’re working with leadership models that have abandoned top-down hierarchical models of management, you are going in the wrong direction.

Because post-modernity is in the process of dismantling hierarchies, I see plenty of organizations struggling with consensus forms of decision making. While everyone may indeed get to feel heard, these organizations and business units are going out of business. Culturally they become too inclusive of everyone’s opinions, lack catalytic direction and selfishly cannibalize resources to support their own processes.These kill both creativity and productivity.

I’ve been lecturing on these tectonic changes in leadership for about 10 years now and I’ll share a few details. First, The Harvard Business School published a study revealing 58% of new executives hired from the outside fail within 18 months. The Corporate Executive Board found 89% of new management hires admit they do not have the full set of skills or knowledge to do their jobs. We could tour more facts and figures—but in short: leadership turnover crushes organizational well being and profitability. As a result, more sustainable leadership practices are required because they insulate organizations from being overly dependent upon leaders and their more limited management practices.

Today’s complex demands and highly competitive marketplaces require more stable forms of leadership. This is especially the case in mature markets. Leaders cannot be intoxicated by their own constructions of direction. This is a high bar. As my Harvard colleague Robert Kegan (arguably the foremost authority on adult development) maintains, less than 1% of adults show the requisite developmental aptitudes to do these complex and nuanced leadership maneuvers.

Facilitative Leadership is one brand of these emerging forms of leadership. It draws on decades of meticulous research into how adults develop professionally and who thrives in the face of complex leadership responsibilities. It is in the heights of your development that you find your larger abilities. These broaden the scope of influence you can make with your life. By training yourself rigorously you can gain bigger perspectives, learn how to effortlessly collaborate, execute goals with precision, command the energetics of a room, make bold maneuvers that yield greater creativity and work optimally in complex, fast paced environments. This is precisely where Facilitative Leadership thrives.

Practice and train to embody this high bar of human excellence. Bring these elegant adaptations into your professional development. I’m convinced that our world needs much more of your facilitative leadership.

Rob McNamara
Harvard University Teaching Fellow, Leadership Coach, Author of The Elegant Self
Ten Directions, Integral Facilitator Faculty


Terri Kruzan

Very insightful and on target post. I have worked with leadership teams for over 25 years on assessing company cultures & how to shape & transform culture to better meet business/mission objectives. New leaders, esp. from the baby boomer generation are many times leery of being in charge – and abdicate their responsibilities by moving toward a more consensus form of decision-making. Facilitative Leadership as discussed here is an innovative a way to balance both a clear management structure with increased collaboration across functions/units to create & implement strategies in a complex & changing work & marketplaces.

Rob McNamara

Thanks for your comment here, much appreciated. The movement away from command we might say is a movement in the wrong direction most of the time. Harnessing diverse perspectives, leveraging buy-in from key stakeholders and co-creating new direction does not come from less command but from more. It’s lovely to hear your perspective here as you have lived it. Thanks for your clarity here, “balance both a clear management structure with increased collaboration across functions/units.” lovely! Thanks Terri,

juliana goga-cooke

Dear Rob, loved your blog. I am looking for contributors for the next issue of Global Flipchart ( newsletter of International Association of Facilitators), which I am the editor in chief. Could I interview you? get an in I see you wrote this 2 years ago, has anything changed? is this being adopted by more organisations? Many thanks, julia

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