Collective Leadership and Teen Science Cafés

Cassandra O’Neill and Monica Brinkerhoff


Cassandra O’Neill and Monica Brinkerhoff are the authors of Five Elements of Collective Leadership for Early Childhood Professionals (Redleaf Press, 2017). Cassandra is the founder and CEO of Leadership Alchemy, and Monica is the Director of Organizational and Employee Development for Child-Parent Centers, Inc. in Tucson, Arizona.



Have you ever heard of collective leadership?  It’s a new way of looking at leadership that is very different from traditional approaches.  It’s a shift from thinking about leadership as something you do to or for others to something you do with others.


Meg Wheatley and Deborah Frieze write about shifting our ideas about leadership from “hero” to “host.” The Center for Creative Leadership white paper, “Future Trends in Leadership Development,” speaks to this need to shift from thinking about leadership in relationship to an individual to thinking about collective leadership: “Leadership development has come to a point of being too individually focused and elitist. There is a transition occurring from the old paradigm in which leadership resided in a person or role to a new one in which leadership is a collective process that is spread throughout networks of people. The question will change from, ‘Who are the leaders?’ to ‘What conditions do we need for leadership to flourish in the network?’ How do we spread leadership capacity throughout the organization and democratize leadership?”


We have developed a framework for collective leadership that has 5 elements and 11 practices, based on a foundation of building trust and addressing inequity.  The elements are: shared vision and re-envisioning, wholeness, collective wisdom/intelligence, co-action, and evolution/emergence.


When we think about effectively engaging students, families, or communities, we find it beneficial to use the framework of collective leadership.  In more traditional approaches to engagement, a program or organization often develops an agenda and then seeks to convince others that they should go along with the pre-determined agenda.  In collective leadership, the agenda, the work, the goals, are determined jointly by those involved in the work.  This can be very different from traditional approaches.  Are you thinking about trying to engage others in your idea or are you seeking to develop ideas together with others?


If you are facilitating Teen Science Cafés, you are engaging teens in different ways.  The elements and practices could help you be more intentional about the way you are partnering.  Some of the practices that would be most applicable to Teen Science Cafés are:

  • Adopting a mindset of abundance (Element 1 Shared vision and re-envisioning),
  • Building resiliency (Element 2 Wholeness),
  • Identifying and building on strengths (Element 3 Collective Wisdom/Intelligence),
  • Make agreements and adopt structures of accountability (Element 4 Co-action), and
  • Engage in reflection and application of learning (Element 5 Evolution/Emergence).


How are you already doing these things? What is working well?  What was a peak experience in facilitating Teen Science Cafés?  A time you felt alive, excited, and engaged in your work with Teen Science Cafés?  When you think about your aspirations, wishes, and dreams for collective leadership in your Teen Science Cafés, what comes to mind?


How might you reflect on your answers to these questions?  Another way to explore this concept with teens is to have paired discussions with them with each of you answering the questions above.  You may be amazed at what you discover.