Practicing Facilitative Leadership

“Facilitative Leadership” is a term that pulls together concepts about leadership paradigms and practices, many of them stemming from the concept of “servant leadership,” which was widely introduced by Robert Greenleaf in the 1970’s and developed by many others since then.

Exploring ideas around facilitative leadership has the advantage of integrating skills related to certain leadership activities with related thoughts and attitudes. Facilitative leadership brings together the whole person of the leader in terms of heart, mind and hands. A leader who relies on facilitation methods in decision-making, for instance, often embodies certain assumptions about group process as well as distinct personal characteristics.

Leadership Postures

A helpful starting place in understanding facilitative leadership is the examination of our leadership posture. Do we think of ourselves as the source of understanding current reality and envisioning the future, or do we recognize that others in the group we’re leading will have different vantage points to perceive present and future and that together we can build a better picture of both? Do we listen to our own voice more than we listen to those of others – including, if we’re people of faith, the voice of God? Are we taking time to reflect deeply on our contexts and do we invite those we lead to do the same?

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Facilitative leaders assume that the capacity for daily work and for moving ahead to meet significant challenges lies within the group as a whole. Their postures exhibit the kind of humility that readily listens to and learns from others and, at the same time, offers to the group as a whole the gift of nurturing the values of listening and learning. To use the term coined by Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline (1990), the facilitative leader cultivates a “learning community.

The Importance of Context

In a business or organizational setting a learning community is one that is often focused on understanding current reality before it sets out to cast vision for the vision. It seeks to comprehend the unique context, internal and external, that drives it to success or failure – in short, to appreciate what makes it tick.

The “appreciative inquiry” approach developed by David Cooperrider and others¹ place primary emphasis on understanding the positive dynamics in a group and building on those dynamics in order to gain momentum for change. Such efforts depend heavily on exploring past and current realities with the group before dreaming about the future and designing effective change.

Discernment and Planning for the Future

Facilitative leaders see the need for planning for the future, within context, and provide opportunity for all stakeholders in their organization or business to participate in the discernment and planning process. While they recognize that all people cannot participate fruitfully in detailed planning, they devise ways – using online survey technology for instance – to hear from the broadest group possible.

Contextual discernment and vision casting for the future are occasions for facilitative leaders to introduce opportunities for reflection on that which holds deepest meaning for the process participants. By encouraging them to articulate what it is that drives them individually and then comparing such articulations with those of their colleagues, the facilitative leader builds shared understanding of the residual strengths and motivations that comprise the group’s momentum. When the group organizes itself around that momentum it is laying tracks for moving into the future that are often more enduring than what might be devised through a more abstract strategic planning process.

Collaboration and Partnering

Many leaders recognize the importance of collaboration and partnering when developing plans for sustainability and/or greater impact. Facilitative leaders will take this approach by default, rather than as an add-on; their starting assumption is that there are almost always ways in which things can be done better together with others than alone.

Team building is an automatic requirement for a business or organization led by facilitative leaders. They will encourage people both implicitly and explicitly, formally and informally, to discover affinities and shared responsibilities and to find ways of connecting parts of the group limb by limb. Externally they will develop relationships with other leaders that begin with the same kind of listening and learning postures that they employ internally, being especially mindful of pointing out converging patterns in context and visions for the future.

Facilitating Group Conversation

It’s no surprise that the heart of facilitative leadership is facilitating conversation – conversation that incorporates inner reflection on self and God as well as conversations between individuals or within larger groups. While a facilitative heart and mind orientation is essential to facilitating group conversation, acquiring particular conversation skills is also fundamental.

What most techniques for facilitating conversation share in common is a dependence on focusing conversation by asking good questions and digging underneath the surface to discover what’s not obvious. With experience facilitative leaders are able bring their groups from confusion to greater clarity and unity by moving them from discrete observations of what’s happening and could happen in future to shared interpretations of the same. This common understanding is then applied to determining necessary changes in action and behaviours, starting with tangible next steps.

One of the most common methods for facilitating these different movements in group conversation is the provision of time for individual reflection, which is then shared and pooled in small groups, and then contributed to the group as a whole. Facilitative leaders become expert in preparing conversational spaces that invite the wisdom of both individuals and the groups they inhabit.²

Of course, their design of such spaces will need to take into account that good listening and effective learning takes time. In fact, the entire facilitative leadership endeavour may seem like a huge time-gobbler; it’s tempting to take only one’s own voice into account and then move ahead quickly. Ensuring that the others in the group are moving in the same direction, however, takes a facilitative leader – a leader who seeks to listen and learn at every opportunity and develops opportunity for others in the group to do the same.


1. See Diana Whitney & Amanda Trosten-Bloom, The Power of Appreciative Inquiry: A Practical Guide to Positive Change (2003).

2. Many facilitation skills derive from the field of education, where teachers have understood for some time now that they too must cultivate learning communities if they expect their students’ learning activity to take root and bear fruit later in life. The title of Jane Vella’s book, Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach (2002), says it all. See also Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach (1998).

Aileen van Ginkel
Aileen is Vice-President, Ministry Services at The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and a Principal in The FIELD Collaborative. She has training and wide experience in facilitating group dialogue of various kinds. She completed her DMin degree in Leadership (2012) at Tyndale Seminary, where she focused her research on developing practices of communal discernment.

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