Synetopia: a Model for Collaborative Leadership

Public servants are increasingly told that beyond competent management, they must show strong leadership – to inspire, energise, and make things happen, whatever the odds.  At the same time, they are also constantly reminded that effective collaboration is now key to achieving organisation goals.  Collaboration with politicians, senior colleagues, one’s staff, other departments and agencies, and the public they are ultimately there to serve, must all be conducted well to attain the best outcomes possible.

Some wonder how one can lead others and collaborate with them at the same time?  Actually, in this age of inter-dependence, collaboration is essential to sustaining strong leadership.  Leaders of groups and organisations can only get the most from all those involved if they are able to interact with them as dependable partners.

But what would it take to attain collaborative leadership so that higher satisfaction amongst the participants and better outcomes for the public can be consistently delivered? One way is to devise a model based on organisational experiences with collaborative working and strategic leadership, and use it as a learning resource.

Between 2003 and 2010, Dr Henry Tam had the opportunity as the UK Government’s Head of Civil Renewal to develop ‘Together We Can’, an action learning programme to study and promote cooperative practices in diverse institutional contexts.  Then from 2011 to 2015, as the Director of Cambridge University’s Forum for Youth Participation & Democracy, I further explored the findings of ‘Together We Can’ with scholars and practitioners from across the world. 

What emerged was a model with nine key elements – the extent to which each of these is realised serves as an indicator of how effective an organisation operates with collaborative leadership.  The model has been named ‘synetopia’: a word that means ‘the cooperative place’ and is also an acronym made up of the first letter of each of the nine elements set out below:

Shared Mission

All those involved are drawn together by a shared understanding of their common mission or purpose.

Measures of success: How widely is the core mission owned and appreciated by all members?  How convinced are members that they will support each other in achieving their mission?

Indicators of deficiency: Members feel a lack of cohesion, concerned that they are isolated and insecure, and some are indifferent or antagonistic towards other members.

You-and-I Mutuality

Instead of ‘Me’-centred individualism or ‘We-subsume-all’ collectivism, there is genuine mutuality in distributing the benefits and burden connected with the group’s activities, and none will take all the credit for the success that comes from the group’s joint endeavours.

Measures of success: Are there arrangements in place to prioritise, adjudicate & enforce how duties and rewards are to be shared out?  How confident are members that the arrangements will operate reliably and impartially?

Indicators of deficiency: Members believe that others have privileged access to what is produced by the group, and they are marginalised and deprived of their share.

Nimble Membership

There is a transparent and responsive membership system that underpins who is brought into the group or excluded from it, and what their rights and responsibilities are.

Measures of success: Is there a sustainable and non-discriminatory process to recruiting, inducting, rejecting & expelling members?  Do members know what is expected of them individually?

Indicators of deficiency: There are too few/too many members to function effectively; current members are distrustful of the process of accepting and/excluding people as members.

Educative Collaboration

All involved are enabled to share ideas, learn through collaborative exchanges, understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and have opportunities to discuss relevant evidence and proposals for change.

Measures of success: Is there a culture of lifelong learning? Are members supported to engage in deliberative exchanges to inform their views, policies, and practices?

Indicators of deficiency: Members are detached from thinking through why things are done in their group; they casually accept or reject ideas & instructions.

Testing of Claims and Assumptions

All proposals and findings are subject to continuous testing, and are revised, if appropriate, in the light of the latest evidence.

Measures of success: How confident are members in questioning claims put forward by those in more highly ranked positions?  Is open and critical discussion of current and new ideas encouraged and facilitated?

Indicators of deficiency: Arbitrary claims beliefs are allowed to take hold & undermine intelligent considerations. There is a widespread perception that there is no point or scope in subjecting any activity to critical questioning.

Open Access to Information

Nothing untoward is hidden and useful information is widely shared.  Processes to detect and expose deception are in place, and demands for secrecy are independently scrutinised for their legitimacy.

Measures of success: How reliable are the communication channels in place to facilitate inspection, audit, whistleblowing and peer review to keep wrongdoing at bay?  How easy is it to access accurate information about the group’s past performance and future options?

Indicators of deficiency: There is common suspicion that systematic or reactive shielding of irresponsible actions is perpetrated; there is unjustifiable refusal or obstruction to members seeking to find out more about the group’s activities.

Participatory Decision-Making

All those involved are enabled to participate as equals in the making of decisions that affect them, and they can contribute to those decisions on an informed and deliberative basis.

Measures of success: Are the procedures for decision-making clear to all?  How readily are training and participation opportunities made available?  And how effective are they in ensuring that no one will be ignored or disrespected?

Indicators of deficiency: A significant number of members either lack the information or skills to make sensible decisions, or decline to become involved in decision making altogether.

Impartial Distribution of Power

Who has what power to act on behalf of the group is clear and subject to review to ensure that none is likely to possess too much power that others are intimated or directly prevented from doing what they judge to be in the group’s interest.

Measures of success: Are there safeguards in place to stop individuals or sections in the group accumulating excessive power?  Is there a regular and effective redistribution of power so that even concentrated powers for emergencies are only granted on a temporary basis?

Indicators of deficiency: There is suppression of dissent and pervasive enforcement of reluctant compliance. Members show fear, resentment and distrust towards the leadership.

Accountability for Action

All involved, especially those entrusted with executive authority, are held accountable for any action detrimental to individual members or the wider interest of the group.  Disputes are resolved through independent mechanisms and judgements carried out in accordance with transparent rules.

Measures of success: How easy is it to detect unjustifiable actions?  Are there reliable mechanisms for all to trigger to summon potential wrongdoers to account for their actions?  Are members supported in being vigilant in challenging decisions that appear to be illegitimate?

Indicators of deficiency: Some are able to stay in positions of power regardless of the severity and frequency of concerns raised; some are suspected of placing their own personal interests and/or those who bribe them above the collective interests of the group.

Training for Collaborative Leadership

If you are interested in learning more about how the SYNETOPIA model can be applied to assessing and improving the development of collaborative leadership in your organisation, please contact Christopher at Civil Service College at to discuss tailor-made training to suit your organisational needs.

Author: Dr. Henry Tam

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