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A Way of Being: Facilitative leadership


"Ehara taku toa i te toa takitahi, engari he toa takitini."

"My strength is not mine alone, it comes from the collective.”

This was part of the opening we did in a training session with a group from Collaborative Aotearoa called “Identity as Facilitator”. In this work, we are learning how Te Reo Maori (Maori language) is not just about language, but also defines a way of being and moving through the world.

This proverb highlighted my own deeply held beliefs that groups are wiser than individuals alone, and that groups can get smarter together. Leaders who use facilitation hold this to be true and know how to “move thorough the (work) world” in ways that support that belief.

While much has been written about “facilitative leadership”, I believe this skill continues to be an under-represented skill of leading in day-to-day work.

At the most basic level, facilitative leadership is described as how leaders “use facilitation in meetings”.  This is part of it, but the art of facilitation is much deeper. Facilitative leadership is also a way of being and moving through the work world.

Margaret Wheatley observed that the “quality of human relationships creates the energy that produces work” (Garmston & Wellman). Facilitation is not just rote strategies to be applied to tasks, but strategies that are rooted in mindsets and associated skills that guide interactions with others.

In one of the best articles that I have come across describing the nuances of facilitative leadership, Jeffrey Cufaude identifies several “gifts” the facilitative leader offers:

  • “Accept and value silence, staying in a reflective mode beyond the normal comfort zone.

  • Move from advocacy to inquiry in an effort to enhance the dialogue.

  • Clarify their inferences by returning to the observations that led to them.

  • Believe that everyone holds a piece of the truth.

  • See conflict between ideas as normal and healthy.

  • Honor individual perspectives and explore the value of minority viewpoints.

  • Clarify their mental models and the assumptions that are influencing their thinking.

  • Expand their sense of the possibilities through creative thinking before jumping into action with critical and constructive thinking.”

These "gifts" are rich, deep and guide not just what strategies to use, but how to listen, attend to and respond to a group, and how your presence is felt and shapes the energy of the group as they work collaboratively.

The art of facilitation is not something that you can just read about and then do with a high degree of efficacy.  It is something that you invest in, reflect on, and practice.

The potential impacts of artfully leading as a facilitator are enormous. “Buy-in” is eliminated as the group defines the work. Culture becomes highly psychologically safe as ideas are formed and reformed by the group in ways that promote and support sharing and vulnerability. Questions and silence are used to help make new connections and foster innovation. The group, quite simply, gets smarter because of how they work together - and people feel good about it.

The sessions we did with Collaborative Aotearoa taught us a great deal. We learned about how to support a group's refinement of their skills, beliefs and mindsets of facilitation, and how we use our own facilitation skills to help groups learn, grow and “get smarter”. They highlighted for us how so much of facilitation is about a way of being.

In Thought Architects facilitating and coaching identities are the way we “move through the world." We foster, grow, and refine our personal identities when we meet as a team, just as we did this past November.

If you are interested in adopting facilitative leadership into your team, reach out to us! We are happy to hear about your thinking on what we think is one of the most impactful – and under-used – aspect of leadership.

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