Cultivating Collective Intelligence


I recently delivered a one-hour Expert Insight for REF Global on LinkedIn Live titled Collective Intelligence: The Intersection of Servant Leadership and Innovation. In preparing for this talk, I reflected on my relationship with Mr. Clifford Boatner – my high school math teacher. Mr. Boatner was particularly relevant to me and the theme of my topic because he was the first teacher to show me what servant leadership was all about. I only recently figured that out.

Until I met Mr. Boatner in the 10th grade, my previous math teachers would give us verbal math problems and, based on the information provided, teach us the formula for solving that problem. We would memorize the formula and learn when and how to apply it. Sounds reasonable. Mr. Boatner took a different approach. Because one can confront countless scenarios, he didn’t believe in having us memorize formulas. Instead, he taught us to think mathematically. That way, if we encountered a situation or problem we had never confronted, we would have the tools to solve it.

I realize now that Mr. Boatner wasn’t just preparing us to pass his test or improve our SAT scores; he was preparing us for life. That’s what a servant leader does. He doesn’t lead his people as employees doing a task at a moment in time; he invests himself in the whole person to be at their best whenever and wherever they are. With this in mind, and as a nod to Mr. Boatner, I took the opportunity to create a theorem for high performance.

 Servant Leadership +  

In the 1970 essay by Robert K. Greenleaf, Servant as Leader, Greenleaf turned the traditional idea of leadership on its head. After 38 years at AT&T, he concluded that the command-and-control leadership that produced power cultures was a less-than-ideal way to lead. Instead, Greenleaf offered what many regarded as an oxymoron – servant leadership. At the time, the idea was anathema to anyone’s understanding, perception, and experience with leadership. Rather than leadership being about the aggrandizement of the leader, he believed leaders should shine their light on the team. It’s not about the leader’s success; it’s about the team.

Servant leadership is much more than a turn of phrase. It must come from within. As Greenleaf wrote, “It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first.” It involves creating meaningful work, letting others shine, leading from the heart, meeting the needs of others, giving and receiving feedback regularly, and sharing power (B. Dan Berger, President & CE0, NAFCU (8/10/2018).

Today, servant leadership is practiced in many companies and is more relevant and natural than ever. As revolutionary as it was in 1970, many leaders and scholars today describe leadership as servant leadership. For example, Peter Senge’s favorite definition of leadership is, “The capacity of a human community to shape its future.” It’s not about the leader as the hero; instead, it speaks to an empowered collective. The benefits include greater employee engagement, more robust financial performance, a healthy culture for change and innovation, and improved employee mental health, among others.

Peernovation + 

While our relationships with our leaders matter greatly, so do the relationships we enjoy with our peers – maybe more so. Peernovation was born from what we intuitively understand and have experienced our whole lives – peer influence and the impact the people who surround us have on our behavior. When we’re more intentional about the people who surround us, and when we’re more selective, strategic, and structured about how we live and work together, we experience peer advantage.

When you and your peers work together optimally, you are likely experiencing Peernovation. Peernovation combines peer (people of like status) and innovation (creativity realized). It occurs when a carefully selected, diverse collection of people, with a common purpose and shared values, work together to make each other better and create something larger than themselves.

In today’s world of rapid change, and one that by 2025 will feature a workforce of 64% millennials and GenZs, and by 2030, 75%, leaders would be wise to pay just as much attention to what’s happening horizontally (the influential employees who may not occupy the most senior level positions have on one another), and vertically, (the executive leadership team, SVPs, VPs, directors, and managers). This horizontal focus includes emphasizing values and purpose (the organization’s and the employee’s), and minimizing self-limiting beliefs.

Collective Intelligence +  

If you want to make servant leadership part of who you are, rather than just what you know, you need a practice field. It would help if you worked with other leaders who understand what it’s like to sit in your chair and participate in the active learning environment that forums and peer advisory groups provide. If you want to lead in the future, relying on artificial intelligence won’t cut it. You’ll require a regular dose of collective intelligence (AI and Human).

Mr. Boatner’s Theorem  

As a dedication to Mr. Boatner, I present Mr. Boatner’s Theorem for High Performance. It’s simple but not easy. The numerator involves Servant Leadership + Peernovation + Collective Intelligence (what it takes to be better at both). The denominator involves connected purpose (the organization’s and the employee’s) + shared values – self-limiting beliefs.

Servant Leadership + Peernovation + Collective Intelligence        

—————————————————————————– = HIGH PERFORMANCE 

Connected Purpose + Shared Values – Self-Limiting Beliefs  

While Mr. Boatner would be the first one to say that there can be more than one way to solve a problem, a decade of fieldwork, a review of contemporary research (including 24 years of the Edelman Trust Barometer), and a review of trends that point us to the workplace of tomorrow, Boatner’s Theorem is worth a try.


Written by Leo Bottary.

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