Betwixt & Between

Issue #3

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Partnership Brokers as Leaders

Abstract: Leadership needs to be a critical focus for partnership brokers as they work to gain insight and inspiration about effective ways to increase their contribution. Just as they may adopt a number of different duties in the fulfillment of their role, brokers may have to express different attributes of directive and non-directive leadership. Based on his own experience as a partnership broker, the author explores servant leadership and situational leadership in the context of partnership brokering.

Partnership Brokers as Leaders

“A failure to focus inward leaves you rudderless, a failure to focus on others leaves you clueless and a failure to focus outward may leave you blindsided.”  Daniel Goleman, The Focused Leader [1]

Partnership brokering requires careful reflection about how to lead collaborative projects. It’s important to find the approach that is right for the situation, aligns with the values of the people involved and enables the partnership broker to get things done with the support of others.

As intermediaries charged with building working relationships between diverse individuals, partnership brokers need leadership models that enable influence to be exercised through service to the group. For this reason it’s helpful to have a framework of principles and ideas to guide leadership practice.

The broker as leader

The role of the broker as leader became important for me when I was responsible for coordinating peer organizations to collaboratively undertake a government-mandated review of small business services in Toronto, Canada.  Since I was a member of the group and, at the same time its facilitator, I was faced with a challenge. What kind of a leadership approach would maximize shared decision-making while enabling each member of the group to contribute?

Was servant leadership the best option?  After all, it championed the needs of others and rejected hierarchical control based on position power. What could be a better fit for peer group facilitation?

Or, could a more situation-sensitive leadership style be better suited to getting the job done?  As partnership brokers, we wear many hats during different stages of the partnership brokering cycle. Was it equally plausible that I needed more than one leadership style?

The servant leader

Robert Greenleaf’s concept of the servant leader is a charter for collaborative leadership [2]. It rejects hierarchical control based on position power and champions serving the needs of others. Authority based on status is substituted by influence based on supportive behaviours.

For me, this was compelling.  As a servant leader I could use skills I admired and found effective: listening, empathy, awareness, conceptualization, persuasion, empowerment and commitment to the growth of people [3]. In my experience, these servant leader attributes mirror many of the competencies partnership brokers need to be effective in their working lives.

Greenleaf’s approach is egalitarian, non-directive and committed to recasting the relationship between leaders and followers. Ultimately the role of the servant leader is to animate positive change in organizations by enabling individuals to be actively engaged in events that affect their lives.


As attractive as servant leadership is as a guiding framework, it has limitations in practice. Service to others is an important way to develop human potential and build a collaborative community. Yet other leadership approaches may be necessary when the environment for collaboration is constantly changing. For example, when projects are complex, participants leave, new people come on board, deadlines loom, conflicts emerge, stakeholders shift their positions or other priorities require attention.

These dynamics are very common in partnering projects. They demand more adaptive and situation-driven approaches than servant leadership tends to offer.

From servant leadership to situational leadership

Sims, Faraj and Yun identify numerous leadership styles and argue that leaders need to change tactics to match different situations [4]. My experience coordinating the review of small business services is a case in point.

The leadership styles used included:

  • Empowering – inviting the group to set shared goals and objectives to foster collaboration and joint ownership of the project;
  • Supporting – encouraging individuals in the group to apply their expertise to specific tasks and showing appreciation for their work;
  • Delegating – Assigning responsibilities to a consultant hired to provide extra support; and,
  • Directing – Telling the group what to do and how to do it when deadlines had to be met.

Situational leadership offers practical guidance for partnership brokers leading complex, high stakes and time bound initiatives.  Table 1 shows how partnership brokers can define their own situational leadership approach and how it was expressed in the specific case of my Toronto project.

Table 1: A general strategy for defining your own situational approach to leadership [5]

The general approach The specific case of my Toronto project
Identify important outcomes
  • Improve entrepreneur programmes through greater collaboration between service providers
  • Implement actions to offer clients the right support, from the right service when they need it
Identify leadership types / behaviours
  • Empowering leadership
  • Supporting leadership
  • Delegating leadership
  • Directing Leadership
Identify situational conditions
  • Level of commitment to achieve results
  • Expertise in partner organizations
  • Readiness to do tasks
  • Urgency to complete project work
Match leadership to conditions
  • Use Empowering when partners are skilled and committed to the task
  • Use Supporting when partners are skilled but need to be motivated
  • Use Delegating when an individual is task-ready and doesn’t need motivation
  • Use Directive when the situation is urgent 

Situational leadership offers breadth, flexibility and direction that enable partnership brokers to manage challenging projects and choose the leadership style that matches the specific conditions they face.

Leadership focus

As partnership broker, we have to apply the most appropriate tools at each stage of the partnering process and innovate where necessary. We also need to keep in touch with new developments in the theory and practice of brokering partnerships. That includes looking at brokering as an emerging form of leadership for complex, multi-stakeholder initiatives where a lot can be gained or lost by the choice of leadership approach.

Disappointment with leadership often dampens our interest in discussing the topic. However, leadership needs to be a critical focus for partnership brokers as we work to gain insight and inspiration about effective ways to increase our contribution. Servant leadership and situational leadership provide powerful models that brokering practitioners can use to define their own leadership approach.  The good news is that there is much room for adapting and enhancing these frameworks.  Are there other models that could be applied?


Earl Miller photo

Earl Miller is the Director, Partnerships – Government and International Relations at MaRS Discovery District in Toronto, Ontario Canada. He leads MaRS’ Regional Innovation Centre and is responsible for provincial commercialization relationships,  government stakeholders in the Toronto Region and business development with Canadian trade and economic development officials, foreign governments and international partners. He collaborates with organizations in the public and private sectors looking to source new technology, invest in startup companies and undertake projects to share knowledge about innovation best practices. Earl has master’s degrees in political science and environmental studies, and is an accredited partnership broker. Prior to joining MaRS, he worked at senior levels in the Ontario Public Service, and at Scotiabank and Ryerson University.

[1] Daniel Goleman,  Focused Leaders, Harvard Business Review, December 2013

[2] Robert K. Greenleaf, The Servant as Leader, Greenleaf Centre for Servant Leadership, 1970

[3] Robert F. Russell and A. Gregory Stone, A review of servant leadership attributes: developing a practical model, Leadership and Organization Development Journal, 2002, p. 146.

[4]   C. Pearce and H.P. Sims et al. (2003), cited in Henry P. Sims Jr., Samar Faraj and Seokhwa Yun, When should a leader be directive or empowering? How to develop your own situational theory of leadership, Kelly School of Business, Indiana University, 2008, p. 150.

[5] Adapted from Sims, Faraj and Yun, op.cit. p. 155. Other styles relevant to brokers are Transactional leadership (reward for effort) and Transformational leadership (compelling vision).

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