Describing participatory leadership

Sometimes we describe what we do with practing the Art of Hosting as bringin participatory leadership to life.  THis can be a major shift in some people’s way of thinking.  To describe it, Toke Moeller sent this around a few days ago – an explanation of participatory leadership in one sentence.

How do you explain participatory leadership in one sentence?

o Imagine… a meeting of 60 people, where in an hour you would have heard everyone and at the end you would have precisely identified the 5 most important points that people are willing to act on together.

o When appropriate, deeper engagement of all in service of our purpose.

o Hierarchy is good for maintenance, participatory leadership is good for innovation and adapting to change.

o Complements the organigramme units with task force work groups on projects.

o Look at how well they did it in DG XYZ – We could be the ones everybody looks at.

o Using all knowledge, expertise, conflicts, etc. available to achieve the common good on any issue.

o It allows to deal with complex issues by using the collective intelligence of all people concerned & getting their buy-in.

o Participatory Leadership is methods, techniques, tips, tricks, tools to evolve, to lead, to create synergy, to share experience, to lead a team, to create a transversal network, to manage a project, an away day, brainstorming, change processes, strategic visions.

o Consult first, write the legislation after.

Traditional ways of working

Participatory leadership complementing

Individuals responsible for decisions Using collective intelligence to inform decision-making
No single person has the right answer but somebody has to decide Together we can reach greater clarity – intelligence through diversity
Hierarchical lines of management Community of practice
Wants to create a FAIL-SAFE environment Creates a SAFE-FAIL environment that promotes learning
Top-down agenda setting Set agenda together
I must speak to be noticed in meetings Harvesting what matters, from all sources
Communication in writing only Asking questions
Organisation chart determines work Task forces/purpose-oriented work in projects
People represent their services People are invited as human beings, attracted by the quality of the invitation
One-to-many information meetings A participatory process can inform the information!
Great for maintenance, implementation (doing what we know) When innovation is needed – learning what we don’t know, to move on – engaging with constantly moving targets
Information sharing When engagement is needed from all, including those who usually don’t contribute much.
Dealing with complaints by forwarding them to the hierarchy for action Dealing with complaints directly, with hierarchy trusting that solution can come from the staff
Consultation through surveys, questionnaires, etc. Co-creating solutions together in real time, in presence of the whole system
Top-down Bottom-up
Management by control Management by trust
Questionnaires (contribution wanted from DG X) Engagement processes – collective inquiry with stakeholders
Mechanistic Organic – if you treat the system like a machine, it responds like a living system
Top down orders – often without full information Top-down orders informed by consultation
Resistance to decisions from on high Better acceptance of decisions because of involvement
Silos/hierarchical structures More networks
Tasks dropped on people Follow your passion
Rigid organisation Flexible self-organisation
Policy design officer disconnected from stakeholders Direct consultation instead of via lobby organisations
People feel unheard/not listened to People feel heard
Working without a clear purpose and jumping to solutions Collective clarity of purpose is the invisible leader
Motivation via carrot & stick Motivation through engagement and ownership
Managing projects, not pre-jects Better preparation – going through chaos, open mind, taking account of other ideas
Focused on deliverables Focused on purpose – the rest falls into place
Result-oriented Purpose-oriented
Seeking answers Seeking questions
Pretending/acting Showing up as who you are
Broadcasting, boring, painful meetings Meetings where every voice is heard, participants leave energised
Chairing, reporting Hosting, harvesting, follow-up
Event & time-focused Good timing, ongoing conversation & adjustment


  1. I don´t find these traditional/new charts very helpful. It looks as if everything traditional was bad and the new way (in this case participatory leadership) is always the opposite of how it was done before.

    In our practice of participatory design and leaderhsip we focus on the context, connect to the common field of all participateurs and from there we move into a generative process which establishes our structures of interaction. That means there is no right or wrong, no traditional or new way, but only approriate to the context or not appropriate to the context.

    For this kind of practice one has to stay aware and open and embrace traditional ways in the same way as new innovative ways.

    Participation in our understanding is allowing everthing and everyone to contribute in its own potential, allowing us to act accordingly without any fixed mindset.

  2. Jascha…thanks for your comment. It’s interesting that you perceive this table as claiming that one is better than the other. I certainly don’t experience it that way and in fact, you might note that the title of the Participatory leadership column says “complimenting.” I agree that context is important. Some of these participatory leadership methods and principles have no place in hierarchical situations, nor do we make a claim for them there. Sometimes hierarchies and bureaucracies are the appropriate structure to get things done.

    I notice that you do the same thing on your website, in order to make a distinction between what you do and what you don’t do. No shame in that, and in fact its quite helpful to understand the distinction.

    Thanks for your comment, especially the last paragraph, which is a succinct description of participation.

    The reason for using the language of participatory leadership is to open up space in traditional organizational structures for forms of shared leadership that might actually get better results. The traditional approach is not always the best way, but sometimes its master practitioners cannot see another way. This table is an attempt to present possibilities.

  3. Please sen me information sbout participatory leadership and servant leadership. Thank You

  4. Hi

    Yes my take on Participatory leadership is that in order to lead effectively in a rapidly changing world where the traditional chain of command is constantly under fire and no longer effective, when people are more and more aware of their rights and also have more insight how organisations function and the role of management, their limitations and how they depend on the cooperation of staff to realise any goals set for the organisation. Management and Leadership also recognize how effective teamwork and cooperative governance is in a very dynamic world. It is true that alone the possible can become possible but together the impossible becomes possible. The key here is getting people to work together and that is where Participatory Leadership has proved its mettle.
    I am currently doing an Advanced Certificate in Education : School Leadership , under Professor Bertie van Wyk and the word he uses constantly is having a COURAGEOUS CONVERSATION’. I wholeheartedly agree with him as in Participatory Leadership you are forced not to accept anything at face value, and you need to ask difficult questions, this is the price you have to pay for allowing Participatory Leadership to happen, if you allow subordinates to have an input you need to be sure that there is substance to what they contribute , thus the need to ask difficult questions when the need occurs. I don’t think this is to intimidate subordinates but in order to educate all involved and to raise the level of the debate. As leader you still need to provide leadership , a leader cannot because of participator leadership become derelict in terms of his responsibility to provide good leadership. Participatory Leadership is just a different style of leadership I order to ensure goals are met but also that there is harmony in the organisation. This can prove true also in a military situation where the lines of command is clear and the line of responsibility is commensurate with the rank. In a commando unit this type of leadership style can be very effective to achieve goals under great pressure.