Today is Thursday, November 8, 2018. The Mid-Term Elections in the U.S. came and went two days ago. (Woo Hoo!) Of course, there are winners and losers. To the winners – those who have been elected to lead us at the community, county, state, and national levels – remember that ancient wisdom is often the best advice. So consider the words of Lao-Tzu about leadership from the Tao-Te Ching:
To lead people, walk beside them…
As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence.
The next best, the people honor and praise.
The next, the people fear;
and the next, the people hate…
When the best leader’s work is done the people say,
We did it ourselves!
And so I ask you…whether you won election this time or are planning already for your next run…what kind of leader do you plan to be?
I hope you will…be greater, do good, everyday, and always change forward!
“Would you have sex with a person whom you knew for certain had AIDS and your only protection was a condom?” That was not a question I had expected, though I had responded to plenty of difficult questions in the preceding three hours of the meeting. For two years I had been piloting a sexuality education curriculum to prepare it for wider dissemination and replication in public schools. My visit to the rural Midwestern community on this winter evening was to meet with the curriculum committee of a local school considering adoption of the program. When I arrived at the school, I learned the meeting was to be held in a large multi-purpose room that served as both a theater and cafeteria. This seemed an odd location for a committee that was typically comprised of less than a dozen people. As I walked into the room, I realized it was not a committee meeting after all, but a community meeting and up to 200 people were expected. My mind raced to understand what this could mean.
I took a walk through the empty hallways of the school to center myself, focus my thoughts, and calm my nerves. I had not prepared for 200. I did not have nearly enough handouts. I could not understand why someone at the school had not given me advanced notice. I puzzled why so many people were expected to attend a committee meeting that even the official members probably skipped as often as possible. The knot in my stomach told me this was not going to be a good evening and that I had better remain calm and focused. I resolved to keep my comments and answers short, simple, and embellished with only a touch of gentle humor to convey friendliness. Walking back toward the meeting room I passed a large group of people huddled in the corner of the school’s main lobby, busily taking notes, and listening intently to the instructions of a man who was obviously in charge. He would be, as I would shortly learn, the first inquisitor of the evening.
A single member of the curriculum committee finally greeted me. I never did meet the other members.
By the time my host escorted me to the podium at the front the room had nearly filled to capacity. The leader of the group in the lobby was seated in the middle of the front row, surrounded by his followers, directly in front of the podium. My host briefly introduced me. I delivered a 15-minute opening presentation as requested and then invited questions.
The man from the lobby rose and asked in a booming voice, “Do you believe in moral absolutes?” and then smiled broadly, while his followers murmured their approval. I breathed deeply, remembered to smile, and said quite simply and very succinctly, “Yes.” For half an eternity, we simply looked at one other, smiling. Slowly, his face began to flush and his feet shuffled uneasily. Finally, he nervously turned to his followers for guidance, his confidence and certainty quickly dissipating. He mumbled something and hastily sat down, even as others in his group leapt to their feet and began shouting their questions at me as if to protect and defend their leader. Some of the questions were about the curriculum, some were about me, and many were philosophical and even theological. Thus, the evening began and continued for more than 3 hours until a man in the last row of chairs stood up and asked: “Would you have sex with a person whom you knew for certain had AIDS and your only protection was a condom?”
I smiled, thanked him for his question, and said, with a touch of humor to diffuse a tense situation, “I don’t think my spouse would appreciate me having sex with another person.” The man exploded in rage. He jumped up and screamed, “I asked you a question and I demand an answer! Would you have sex with a person whom you knew for certain had AIDS and your only protection was a condom?!?” All eyes flashed toward him, then shifted back toward me to see what I would do. I stood silent for a moment to quell my fear and compose myself. Finally, I calmly replied, “I’m sorry, I don’t believe that is an appropriate question.” All eyes turned back to him and throughout the room I could hear the whispered pleas from embarrassed community members for him to, “Sit down and shut up.”
Mercifully, the meeting was soon over…but the evening was not.
As the meeting was breaking up I was gathering my wits and materials. A woman strode up, stood in front me, glared into my face, and said, “I cannot believe you were ever a minister of the Gospel.” I was stunned and did not respond, so she moved closer and repeated it louder. I still did not know what to say so she came even closer and yelled it at me. I finally managed to mumble, “Thank you for your comment,” turned quickly, and started walking for the door.
Just before I reached the door, a man ran into me…hard…knocking all the materials out of my hands onto the floor. I was shocked to see he was a priest. I bent down to pick up the materials, keeping one eye on my “assailant.” To my surprise, the priest bent down and started helping me pick up the material. As we were both bent over, our heads close together in the gathering work, he whispered to me: “I really appreciate what you are doing and support it. I just wanted you to know I can’t say so publicly.” He handed me the last paper he collected, straightened up, and walked out the door.
The drive home was nearly 200 miles in the middle of the night over frozen roads, and I would finally get home at 4:00 AM. I never once feared for falling asleep as I intently watched the road ahead of me, and wondered what kind of place I had been where I would be accosted by a priest, just so he could speak to me. I nervously watched the rearview mirror for fast approaching headlights on the isolated rural highways.
It was months before I would sleep well again, even in the security of my own home.
As I drove home my mind tried to make sense of the evening. I also tried to make sense of my career move barely two years before. I had moved from a career in religious work to social services, where I was put in charge of piloting and replicating a teen pregnancy prevention program. I wondered if I had made the right move and if this kind of thing was going to be a regular part of the job. Even more, I wondered if I should stay with it. I did. Now, more than two decades later, and many similar community meetings, I am still in the field, as are numerous other veterans of the conflict over sexuality education on both, or many, sides. Since that winter evening I have wanted to more fully understand why and how we provide leadership amid such conflict.
This true story was featured in the opening pages of my doctoral dissertation, which was completed in 2013 after years of living the intractable conflict over sexuality education in public schools. It is a battle for public support and funding that still rages today, having originated in Chicago in 1913.
The study focused on the intractable conflict over sexuality education in public schools. However, the “lessons learned” in the study can be applied wherever competing ideologies keep people from working together for a greater good. Have we not seen this competition in many community change coalitions, collaborations, and collective impact initiatives? Of course, it happens regularly in politics, leading to the infamous gridlock that hobbles any administration and legislature from leading and governing.
I am not offering this summary because it has all the answers. I am offering it because it may have some insights that are timely, especially for those of us who live in the United States. Indeed, it raises some important issues and questions if we are going to find a way to work together – regardless of our cause and despite our differences.
Some people think of me as an expert in a few things, which is okay. It is not okay, however, that I have acted like an expert in most things…if not all things on occasion.
This awareness is part of the understanding that comes with experience and maturity (which is a nice way of saying “age”). That it took me a while to arrive at this self-understanding is a bit embarrassing yet I’m glad I did. It has dramatically changed how I try to work with individuals and groups. Even more, I think it has changed my relationship with them for better.
The problem with being an expert on anything is that we imagine it comes with a license to weigh in on everything, no matter how remotely related to our actual expertise. It is even worse when we experts become leaders. Leadership implies responsibility and now, along with our license, we feel a duty to share our expertise with everyone we can, whenever we can, wherever we can, and to the fullest extent possible. Makes us great party guests, huh?
When we experts are put in leadership of a team, a coalition, a collaboration, a backbone organization, or a collective impact initiative, it becomes especially important for us to exercise self-control.
Only when we lay aside what we think we know and lay down our leader/expert role can we hear more clearly the expertise of others and the wisdom of the collective.
So, this is where Craig Ferguson’s advice comes into play. In a stand-up comedy special he performed in 2011 titled Does This Need to be Said?, Ferguson offered three self-reflective questions. In one of his best lines, he also said it took him three marriages to learn them. Besides their potential for saving marriages, they are also important questions for us leader/experts to consider before sharing our wisdom. Let’s take a brief look at each of Ferguson’s questions:
Does this need to be said? Collaboration work is full of ups and downs. There will always be a temptation for us leader/experts to step in to try to solve, explain or otherwise smooth the way. In reality, the way does not always have to be smoothed. Often it is in the process of working together, through both good and bad, that challenges are met by groups with innovative solutions which produce the best outcomes.
Does this need to be said by me? Truthfully…probably not. I’m learning that if I shut up, allow space for others to speak up while I simply listen, then if it needs to be said at all, others will say it. I’m learning there is often a difference between what I see as an issue and what the group sees as an issue.
Does this need to be said by me now? You see, when I put on my leader/expert Super X-ray Glasses I can see many things that mere mortals cannot. Further, my expertise may tell me that “this is gonna be a problem and we gotta deal with it now.” When I shut up, keep my opinions to myself, and just listen, what I have learned is: a)if my analysis is correct, then others will usually see it too, name it, and the group will address it; b)my analysis may be only partially correct and the group may feel there are other issues (which my analysis may have missed or minimized) that it needs to address first; or c) if my analysis is dead wrong, the group will move to other issues which, once resolved, tend to take care of the issue I diagnosed.
A more academic presentation of Ferguson’s three questions comes from one of my favorite organizational culture authors, Edgar Schein. In his article On Dialogue, Culture, and Organizational Learning, Schein described “suspension” as a critical aspect of productive group dialogue. “Suspension” is to stop talking and listen: “to let the issue – our perceptions, our feelings, our judgments, and our impulses – rest for a while in a state of suspension to see what more will come up from ourselves and from others” (p. 33).
More pragmatically, I have to come to call this “listening for crickets.” This is the time of year for cicadas to make their presence known. I love the sound of cicadas – for this native Iowa country boy their annual symphonies are the quintessential sound of summer. Admittedly, cicadas can be quite loud and intrusive. Crickets, on the other hand, often require us to suspend our activity and to listen quietly for their “voices.” This is what we leader/experts must also do to make sure all voices can be raised, are included, and clearly heard and understood in the collaborations we lead.
Today, I am building my expertise in listening for crickets and trying to lead by that example. In doing so I hope other leader/experts will follow and, even more, that the crickets among us will speak out and be heard. After all, listening for crickets is one of the most important competencies for any collaboration leader. Let’s get better together.
Be Greater. (Listen for Crickets.) Do Good. Everyday.
Whether it is Collective Impact, or another collaboration framework, our collaborative posture is a critical underlying factor in success.
Recently the Collective Impact Forum featured a terrific piece by Sheri Brady and Jennifer Splansky Juster on the Collective Impact Principles of Practice. These eight principles to guide efforts to put Collective Impact into practice are long overdue.
There is still something missing. Each of the principles help collaborative groups operationalize the five conditions of Collective Impact (which you can probably recite by memory now: common agenda, shared measurement, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication, and backbone support). Yet each of the principles assumes members of Collective Impact groups possess the collaborative posture to enact the eight principles. I am wary of this assumption. I fear most people will read the CI Eight Principles of Practice and respond much in the same way they did to the CI Five Conditions: “Yep, makes a lot of sense. Got it! In fact, we’re doing those things already.” My experience in creating new collaborative efforts, and helping to repair existing efforts gone awry, has taught me that the best principles and conditions in the world will not make any difference if members have poor collaborative posture.
Much of what has been written about Collective Impact has focused on what people do to achieve it. This is not surprising because many people crave the comfort and certainty of formulas, recipes, and best practices – even though these are not very helpful in addressing complex issues. Underlying and supporting all of the doing is being the kind of people who can do what is necessary. I could use several of the eight principles that Brady and Splansky Juster identified to illustrate what I mean but I will focus on this one to make my point: “Include community members in the collaborative.” Specifically, the authors define community members as “those whose lives are most directly and deeply affected by the problem addressed by the initiative.” I fully agree with this principle but, realistically, it is difficult to do and often resisted. The most common protests to doing this are typically related to logistics: “We meet during the weekdays, can they come at the same time?,” “How would they get here?,” “Could they come to where we meet?,” and “Do they really have the experience to know how to interact with our group?” The answers are really pretty straightforward to these barriers: “Change you meeting time, provide transportation and/or make the location more convenient to community members, educate members about the content, and orient them to, even train them in, the process of your meetings.” I do not believe the logistics are really to blame. I believe the problem lies within the will of both individual members and the group. Remember the old saying, “Where there is a will, there is a way?”
Possessing a collaborative posture is about being the kind of people who find the will to do what it takes to engage people in the community and to actually do the other principles.
What does it take to achieve a collaborative posture? Let me suggest at least three things. I touched on these back in January and here I will expand on them just a bit:
Checked Egos. Ego is fueled by the perceived right to authority. There are many things that cause us to feel like we have a right to make decisions on behalf of others. Some of these things include, but are not limited to, education, wealth, status, race, formal position, the depth of one’s personal experience, and even the honor of membership in a social change collaborative group that is going to “help” others. When we humans come together in a group to make decisions that affect the lives of others, it is so easy to feel like we have been given authority over others, even if only a little.
When we “check” our egos, we willingly lay down the right to have the final word in decisions that affect the lives of others.
When we must make those decisions, we do so as inclusively as possible and, even then, with a sense of awe, respect, and care. I know. This does not sound practicable in a world that moves as fast as ours. Yet we mostly accomplish this capacity by living into an attitude of humility.
Crossed Boundaries. To cross boundaries in collaborative work is to invite others to work with us, and especially those who are not like us and may not even trust us. Why in the world would we ever do that? Simple; because we cannot make change happen by ourselves. It is completely human, when we form groups, to gravitate toward those most like us and whom we find most agreeable. This ensures our comfort in the group and comfort is important. You know what I am talking about; you have seen it yourself. A coalition or collaboration forms by gathering “the usual suspects,” those individuals and groups already known to one another because they have partnered on the same or similar issues in the past. They know before they ever meet they are all “on the same page.” This is not horrible, but it is very inadequate because it often leads to doing “business as usual.” What if a collaborative group were to form among individuals and groups who shared a similar goal but had very different ideas for how to accomplish it? For one thing, everyone would feel a lot less comfortable.
I used to teach groups that the first step to crossing boundaries was to take a good look at their group and see who was not in it and yet should be. I have given up on that strategy. There is a stronger tendency toward group self-preservation than I ever estimated. Once it has achieved a particular comfort, it fights to maintain the status quo. As a result, groups often conclude most everyone who should be in the group is already in the group.
What I have found to be more effective in teaching groups about boundary crossing is to ask this question: “What individuals or groups do you feel most uncomfortable including in your collaborative group, even though they may agree with your ultimate goal?” Once they have listed those individuals or groups, I encourage them to reach out to them and begin the process of inviting them to participate.
Crossing boundaries has to take us out of our comfort zone or else we have not crossed anything.
Shared Power. Power sharing is rooted in a deeply held belief in the expertise of others. A few years ago I was in a meeting with the leadership team of a collaborative group that was responsible for implementing social service interventions in an urban community. I had just finished a day-long meeting with the full collaborative group and, during this debrief, I had merely observed to the leadership team that I did not meet any people in the group who actually lived in the community they were serving. The response I received was stunning in its arrogance as a team member pounded the table and said, “Why would we have them here? We are the experts!” Oh boy.
When we convene our Collective Impact and collaborative groups, we tend to seek out experts on the issue we are trying to address. This makes sense because we want the very best to help us solve the difficult, complex challenges we are facing. Experts are people with extensive skills and/or knowledge of a specific field, area, or issue. Does expertise include status, wealth, connections, and even celebrity? We must believe it does because we often prioritize recruitment of members with these qualifications. While it is important to include them in our collaborative groups, I do not believe any single area of expertise (including these) qualifies anyone to hold power over the lives of others.
Do we also believe in the expertise of the people who are living day-to-day with the issue our group is working to address? Do we believe drug addicts understand the addictive process better than we do and have solutions to offer? Do we believe the observations of people living in poverty concerning how policies and practices in our community are actually barriers to their getting out of poverty? Do we believe gang members and victims have insights on how to stop the violence? Do we believe poor people can offer solutions to their own situation? Do we believe people struggling with obesity know something about eating healthier? Do we believe parents of children who have been removed from the home and placed into the foster care system can also help us think of better ways to do child welfare in our communities? Or do we merely see all of these as people who need the help only we, the experts, can give them?
If we do not believe that every person has expertise, then we will cling to power, and our community and our collaborative initiative will struggle. When we release the power and share it with others, we will not only learn from one another but we will grow participation and ownership of the solutions.
What do you do when you realize the monumental project you have undertaken will have to be finished without you?
This was the question Antoni Gaudi faced when the architect realized his great work, the Sagrada Familia, would not be finished in his lifetime. Gaudi’s solution is one that is still available to us today.
This past October I traveled to Barcelona, Spain to attend the International Leadership Association global conference where I was privileged to present a paper. I also participated in a fascinating pre-conference workshop that introduced me to the life and legacy of Antoni Gaudi. It also included a tour of the Sagrada Famalia, personally guided by our workshop leader, an architectural historian who had studied the life and work of Gaudi. By no means does one become an expert in Gaudi and his work in a day-long event. I did gain from this experience, though, a deeper understanding of collective leadership and its importance for collective impact.
The Sagrada Familia was conceived in 1866 as a holy offering to God by the Spiritual Association of the Devotees of Saint Joseph. Antoni Gaudi, himself a devout Roman Catholic, was named the second chief architect of the Sagrada Familia in 1883, within a year after the building’s first stone was laid. The first chief architect resigned in a dispute with the Association. Gaudi took over the project when he was 31 years old and guided it until his death at age 74.
The Sagrada Familia became, for Gaudi, the greatest and most meaningful work of his life. Gaudi came from a poor family and he struggled throughout his life to make a living. From 1883 to 1914 he worked other architectural jobs to support himself and even to purchase materials and labor to build the Sagrada Familia. It is reported that he gave much of his earnings to the project and was even known to beg passersby on the street for contributions. In 1914, sensing the project required his full attention if it were to be completed, Gaudi devoted his full time and effort to it.
Still, this was not enough. Gaudi believed he would not live long enough to see the building completed, with good reason. In 1914 Gaudi was 68 years old and he had suffered from poor health all of his life. Chronically ill since childhood, during his conscripted service in the Spanish army as a young man he was often on medical leave. However, Gaudi did not die of any sickness. Only two weeks before his 75th birthday in 1926 he was accidently struck by a tram in the streets of Barcelona and died of his injuries in a pauper’s hospital only three days later.
Whether it was prophetic, insightful, or just plain luck, Gaudi’s realization and subsequent strategic choice in 1914 made it possible for his great work to be completed by others. Instead of continuing to focus on the actual construction of the building, Gaudi turned his attention to building the models and plans for others to follow. By the time of his death, Gaudi had finished enough that others could complete the project. Since 1926 there have been six other architects who have led the work and each has continued to build the Sagrada Familia according to Gaudi’s original concept and models. The Sagrada Familia is scheduled to be completed in 2026 in recognition of the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death.
There are different ways to express collective or shared leadership. A common one is the simultaneous leadership of multiple people or groups. This is often how teams and collaborations work together. An Individual or group steps up to provide leadership in an area of expertise while others do the same in their areas. Another expression of collective leadership is what Gaudi did with the Sagrada Familia. Despite his deep love, intense commitment, and nearly life-long ownership of the project, he opened and prepared the way for others to continue his work. Notably, while he created the concepts, models, and plans, he did not prescribe every decision and detail for his successors. In this way, they were free to interpret his vision and similarly own the project. Yet, the collective impact represented by the completion and overwhelming presence of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is undeniable.
Collective impact initiatives that result in durable social change need to be managed through collective leadership. While the collective leadership approach may be different for each collective impact initiative, one thing is true about each one: collective leadership begins with the individual.
This is my truth about collective leadership:it is less about techniques and tactics to help us become better at collective leadership; and mostly about individual attitude and will. Even if we had none of those tools and strategies, it would still be possible to engage in effective collective leadership. Why? Because we already have the skills. We learned them as children when we wanted to play well with others. We just need to rediscover and release that inner good playmate again.
Playing well with others is a choice. Confession: it is also part of my truth that I do not always choose to be a good playmate. Even if it is an unconscious choice, it is still a choice. When my “good child” comes out to play with others in collective leadership, it is typically because I have willfully made three personal choices:
Check ego. I do not mean “check” in the sense of making sure I have an ego. Of that I have no doubt. I mean “check” in the sense of making sure it is under control. Ego is about my right to authority. To check my ego is to intentionally lay down my right to the have the final word. This is a wholly internal process that is about changing my own attitude. After all, social change is not all about me, or you, for that fact. Social change is about creating a greater good for our world that we may not be around long enough to enjoy. If we will not check our ego, we are not yet ready for collective leadership. When we do, we are ready to move on to the next two things, which are now easier to do once we have checked egos.
Cross boundaries. Simply put, this means I invite others to work with me – especially those who are not very much like me. I do this because I know I cannot solve social problems by myself. I do this, too, because I know diversity of perspectives, experience, and ideas will result in an even better effort. Crossing boundaries has to take us out of our comfort zones or else we have not crossed anything. It is the only way for us to come in contact with and gather the kind of robust collective impact group members we will need to be innovative and energized. Sometimes, it even means we cross into the deep space of the conflict zone, to bring in people who are our critics and naysayers, especially when we know they share our end goal.
Share power. This is where it “gets real” for my checked ego. Once the group or team has been assembled, I need to work collaboratively with them to create the kind of space where each of us has an important and meaningful role in shared decision making and collective leadership. Power sharing in collective leadership creates ownership. Remember, Gaudi could have exerted immense power, even from his grave (which is in the building’s crypt), by including instructions on every intricate detail of the Sagrada Familia. If he had, he probably would not have actually finished even the planning before his death. Even more, his successors might have grown to resent feeling compelled to finish his great work rather than develop a deep sense of ownership of their joint project.
This week (January 18, 2016) we remember and honor the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the United States. The question that opened this post is one that he seems to have been wrestling with as well just prior to his last speech in Memphis, Tennessee.
Through the collective leadership of Dr. King and those whom he gathered around him in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he found a way to ensure his great work would continue, even to this day. Today none can deny the collective impact of the civil rights movement in the United States.
I have been and remain convinced the fuel of collective impact includes collective leadership. I believe these three personal choices – check ego, cross boundaries, and share power – can and will strengthen our collective leadership efforts for collective impact.
I have a confession to make. I attend Tamarack’s Collective Impact Summits for very selfish reasons. I have come to experience and appreciate the annual event as a personal retreat. Okay, it is a personal retreat taking place in the midst of several hundred people. Never forget the words, though, of the world famous Anonymous who said, “Even in a crowd, you are alone inside your own head.” (Kudos to the Tamarack team for another extraordinary event last month in Vancouver!)
When I attend this Tamarack event I am in a continuous state of reflection and inner dialogue.
This dialogue is informed and shaped by the people I meet, the conversations I have, my observations, and my experiences at the event. I can appear to be busy on the outside and at this year’s event I was quite busy: I facilitated a daily “Learning Lab” consisting of ten other participants; led a workshop; was a late substitute facilitator for another workshop; and hosted a dinner conversation. Through all of this I was still alone inside my own head…and loving it!!!
In recent years my work has led me to a more intentional practice of reflection and a deeper appreciation for the role of reflection in leadership. For most of my life I have been a Quaker, a member of a group known for its use of meditative silence. However, only recently have I come to more fully connect reflection and leadership. The first point of connection was when I was conducting and writing up my doctoral research on leadership in the intractable conflict over sexuality education in the United States. In that study I found that leaders of sexual health organizations, who are engaged in the conflict, are quite reflective. They are involved in three interactive reflective processes that affect their leader motivations and behaviors, and, yet, contributes to perpetuating the conflict.
The second point of connection was about a year ago when a colleague and I were working together on a “mindfulness” curriculum for teachers at the Transylvania College in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. In the process of editing the material I found myself learning more about the practice of mindful reflection and how it related to leadership in the classroom. It inspired me to learn more about both mindfulness practices and reflective leadership.
The third point of connection came earlier this year when I was trying to answer the dreaded question I get from prospective clients: “How much do you charge?” I usually want to say, “Just enough,” because, in fact, it is true. When I moved into consulting work I wanted to stay to true to my personal mission of working on behalf of nonprofit organizations, especially those that can benefit from high quality leadership and organizational development assistance but usually cannot afford the rates charged by large consulting groups. To this end I did my research and I came up with a rate that meets my needs (not my “wants,” to be sure, or else I would not still be driving an eleven year old Subaru) and which rarely gets any push back from my clients.
The process of thinking through an answer to the question of “How much do you charge?” led me, not surprisingly, to a reflection on the values I bring to my work. This resulted in the creation of the TRIBE Guarantee that I offer every client.
When we intentionally embrace mindful reflection as part of our leadership approach there are two benefits that are nearly immediate. First, we are driven to think more carefully about the alignment of our values with our leadership behavior. It pushes us to consider the things we are doing as a leader in light of who we are being as a person. It calls us to look at how we treat followers, colleagues, and those whom we are trying to help or lift up. Even more, it can help us be more present to each. Overall, mindful reflection can inspire us to more authentic leadership.
The second benefit becomes apparent when we are trying to provide leadership in a collaborative effort, such as a Collective Impact initiative. Even on the best days, it can feel like we are one of those legendary cat herders of Western lore.
On more challenging days, those in which we are running severely low on patience and good humor, reflection can save us from damaging over-reactions. Edgar Schein advocates for the practice of suspension which is a reflective process of internal listening that needs to precede response. Suspension is a particularly useful skill in those circumstances when we have been in an interaction that we perceive to be negative (e.g., disagreement, challenge, attack, etc.). Schein writes, “We have to learn to listen to ourselves before we can really understand others.”
These two benefits of reflection are related. Becoming a more reflective, authentic leader will affect our efforts in collective leadership by inspiring us to build relational trust and act more ethically in all of our behaviors. Who can say these are not good things?
Here we go again. It is the Quadrennial Quest for the next “great” leader of the United States. It is too bad we are fixated on a Presidential leadership model that has not worked well in the recent past and increasingly holds little hope for the future. Are we ready to embrace a different approach to leadership that is a better practice now and in the future?
It does not appear so, according to the coverage of the approximately 20 Presidential candidates mucking their way through my beloved Iowa State Fair and spouting their solutions for every issue imaginable during this past week. Yes, mucking and spouting…spouting and mucking, ad nauseam. By the way, my favorite imitation of an Iowan from this week’s coverage was performed by Republican candidate Carly Fiorina. Fiorina appeared in a photo at the Iowa State Fair in front of the famous Butter Cow dressed in a plaid flannel shirt and blue jeans. Please. What idiot campaign aide told her THAT would be a good idea? Just to set the record straight, I’m including some random photos of what REAL Iowans look like and how they dress on the job. But I digress.
The United States, and most other countries, are locked into a mythic model of leadership known formally as the “Great Man” theory. In the 1970’s “Transformational Leadership” theory was introduced by James MacGregor Burns as an alternative way to think about leaders. Transformational Leadership became, and remains very popular, though it still retains many elements of the Great Man theory because of its dependence on a single individual to lead the way and call forth the inner leader of others.
I am convinced we will not make real progress in being greater and doing greater good until we renounce our heretical faith in the power of a single great leader. The velocity of knowledge and the complexity of our world are forcing us to consider other approaches. For me, shared leadership in a collaborative culture is more realistic and hopeful.
Recently I again observed the power of shared leadership and collaboration in action. For the past two summers I have taught “Managing for Optimal Performance” in the MBA in Economic Development program at Eastern University. It has been a small class, only three and four students, possibly because the focus on the program is on alleviating poverty which is certainly not the typical career path for many MBAs. The course is very short…barely six weeks. Yet, in that time, students are expected to design, deliver, and report out on a project that is intended to help people living at or near the poverty level. This summer’s projects included a soccer clinic for Haitian immigrant youth; distribution of nutritional information and recipes at an urban farmer’s market; a family photo project for immigrant Latin American single mothers and their children; and a “good neighbor” yard clean up and home fix-up day for a single mom recently debilitated in an accident. In all cases, the students were required to form a team of no less than four people and to use decision making processes that were inclusive and collaborative. The project reports clearly showed the depth of understanding the students’ acquired about establishing a collaborative culture and using shared leadership.
As I reflected on their project journals and reports, I found myself thinking about those things I am most likely to hear come from the mouths of leaders who really try to practice shared and collaborative leadership.
“Please.” Collaborative leaders do not just assume people will follow them because they have the title, the position, the power, or even a “mandate.” They invite others into leadership, humbly seek their expertise, and genuinely value the contribution each makes.
“How or what do you see, understand, experience, or believe about our situation?” For collaborative leaders, the perspectives of others are invaluable sources of information. They understand that many of the problems we face are so large and so complex that the better solutions are found when many eyes from diverse viewpoints are examining them.
“What options do you believe offer us the best chance of addressing the situation?” Working in collaboration means gleaning the best ideas from among the many perspectives on the situation without regard for self-interests. I know. If I had not thrown in that bit about self-interests, it would have been just fine, right? My experience has been that partners in shared or collaborative leadership often filter their ideas in order to protect self-interests. They may fear giving away proprietary information or trade secrets that can weaken their competitive advantage over competitors, who may also be their collaborators on some projects.
“Thank you.” These two under-utilized words powerfully acknowledge that a single individual alone is not responsible for any good thing that happens. These are words of humility that indicate a collaborative leader’s awareness of the role of others.
“We did it.” This is a tricky thing for a collaborative leader to say because it is so tempting to say it without really meaning it. It can merely sound like an imitation of humility, if it does not come from a genuine posture of humility. Know what I listen for? Emphasis. When I hear the word “we” emphasized too strongly, I suspect leaders are trying too hard to convince themselves and others that they really mean “we” and not “I.”
Spewing from the mouths of muckers and spouters, these same five phrases can be just empty words in a crass imitation of humility. Whether the speakers are vying for the role of President, Prime Minister, or leader of a local community change effort, we must watch and wait. We need to be on the lookout for those who reveal their collaborative nature through the congruence of consistently matching these words with a posture of humility.