Today in the Lab, we discussed a concept that is very near and dear to our Collective hearts. Through a discussion that went in a variety of directions (and inspired by conversations that we had been having for a while), we came up with an axiom: Good Leadership is Good Facilitation and Good Facilitation is Good Leadership.

While this concept has a lot of subtle nuances there were a couple of common characteristics that should be core to facilitators and leaders alike: Situational Awareness and Having Empathy and Compassion.

The formal context of being a facilitator for a group has an inherent leadership component. Groups see the identified facilitator as a leader in the context for which that facilitator has been identified. (Anecdotally, this effect seems greater when the facilitator is an external resource hired at some cost.)

And a good facilitator must be adept at reading the context—i.e., the needs and dynamics of the group, the goal, etc.—and responding accordingly in service of the group achieving their goal. Knowing when to be flexible and when to be rigid, when to be directive and when to be compassionate is part of being a good facilitator, and thus a good leader.  As I said, this is probably intuitive to most of you.

Good leadership and good facilitation based on situational awareness, empathy, and compassion means having flexibility in what form your leadership takes. Relying on only one approach is a pitfall many organizational leaders get caught in. A leader can’t only be directive or facilitatative, but rather needs a dynamic approach that allows them to adjust their leadership approach dial based on situational need.

What might not be intuitive is the role of empathy and compassion in effective facilitation and leadership. Why should these characteristics be core to facilitators and leaders? One possibility is that facilitators and leaders who are skilled at empathy and practice compassion are more inclined to divorce their own egos from context in which they must facilitate and lead.

As providers of external facilitation services, we at Collective Next find ourselves in leadership roles focused on designing collaboratively facilitated programs for groups of people. In this role we often experience our axiom in its fullest. We balance process leadership with our program sponsors in order to create collaborative experiences that foster alignment among larger participant groups. In order to do this effectively, we rely on our abilities to adjust our leadership/facilitation presence based on program design and what the group needs to be successful in the moment.  

The best facilitators and the best leaders hold the goal of the group, or the mission of the organization, as its beacon for situational decisions-making.  It’s a near-invisible action that can usually be found on the other side of a breakthrough decision, or after a challenge to group or individual processing.  By holding this vision and direction as the guiding light, most great leaders and facilitators swiftly navigate the minefield of naysayers, false champions and vocal derailers and manage to successfully charge forward.

These leaders can also be described as the most genuine leaders, leaders and facilitators that use the power of compassion and empathy, combined with laser like directness when appropriate, and active listening, to rally their groups or organizations towards their goals. This element of genuineness breeds trust and exudes fairness in a way that inspires others to follow.

The New Oxford American Dictionary defines facilitation as the process of making something easier and leading as guiding a person or organization forward. The two are symbiotic. Motivating a person or organization to move forward effectively by making the path clear and attainable is not enough. An effective leader then helps them skillfully navigate the path forward, guiding them to achieve their goal.

How individuals achieve effective facilitation and leadership varies. We encounter many different types of leaders, each with his or her own style of leadership. The nuances of how they facilitate and lead distinguish them as individuals and the commonalities they share of situational awareness, compassion, and genuineness define them as effective facilitators and leaders.