Ecosystems for sustainability: Leadership and motivation
Ecosystems offer a perspective that aims to understand how a multi-organizational collaboration in which actors complement one another can create and capture value for sustainability.

Ecosystems can be characterized as a collaboration of a diverse set of partners that together 1) create value (e.g. sharing resources, knowledge and employees), 2) capture value (e.g. improved reputation, increased sales), and 3) share a culture, processes, structure and KPIs. Ecosystems are increasingly used by governments and organizations to create (sustainable) innovations for complex problems that humanity is facing. Research in this project is concerned with the leadership styles that ecosystem leaders can use to facilitate the underlying structure, processes, culture and KPIs that in turn can motivate the organizations and individuals that are part of the system to contribute to sustainable innovation.

Research background

Humanity is facing many complex challenges ranging from social instability and climate change to traffic accidents and an aging population. To provide solutions to these challenges, the support, input, and expertise of a wide range of partners is required. Such a diversity of partners increasingly collaborates in so-called ecosystems; complex social systems in which cooperation takes place. However, capturing and creating value can be a difficult process because of the risk of opportunistic behavior. Proper management, taking into account important institutions such as culture, structure, processes and metrics, can protect the system against unwanted behavior of parties by reaching mutual agreement.

According to the literature, to be able to properly manage the ecosystem, a leader is required who is able to protect the system and achieve mutual agreement, by being a facilitator and a connector, a visionary and a strategist. A first literature review and empirical research showed that the influence of a leader is essential and that there are several leadership styles (e.g. transformational leadership and sustainable leadership) that a leader can use to successfully execute his / her role and take a cooperation to the next level. In addition to the interests of the leader, research also points to the importance of the presence of autonomous motivation among all parties. Only when a party within an ecosystem is genuinely autonomously motivated, he/she will be able to optimally contribute to the higher goal that the system pursues as a group. It is the leader's task to get all parties within an ecosystem autonomously motivated through institutions and governance elements, in order to pursue the higher goal together.

Although a great deal has already been investigated in work- and organizational psychology literature, team literature and open innovation literature, the role of the leader, the presence of leadership styles and their influence on the autonomous motivation of partners within an ecosystem context has hardly been investigated. It is also not yet known whether different leadership styles may be needed in different phases of development.

Our research focuses on understanding the role of the leader within ecosystems; we aim to better understand how different leadership styles influence the autonomous motivation of partners within a partnership and how this autonomous motivation contributes to the feeling of mutual agreement. These insights will ultimately contribute to a better understanding of partnerships. When it becomes "easier" to collaborate, the safe and sustainable world of the future comes one step closer. After all, working together is a methodology to ultimately go through the transition together.



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  • Ahn, J.M., Roijakkers, N., Fini, R., & Mortara, L. (2019). Leveraging Open Innovation to Improve Society: Past achievement and future trajectories. R&D Management, 49(3), 1-24.