July 2, 2020 – Deciders and Doers

Today I had two very interesting conversations with people. The first occurred at the end of a round of golf. The second occurred at the end of the day. Both have put me in a reflective mood.


deciders and doers

Today I was at the golf course at 5:45 AM because it is the best time for an older guy like me with underlying health conditions to play safely. At the first tee I joined up with three other men and we played together. I did not know any of the three as is often the case at the course where I play. It is one of the most interesting and diverse golf venues I’ve ever played. It is racially diverse (nearly equal part Asian, Black, and White players) and professionally diverse (auto mechanics, doctors, Secret Service and CIA agents, etc.).

Of the three men I played with today, two were twin brothers (unfortunately for me they were identical and even dressed similarly in two shade of the same blue color and have similar sounding four letter names – Kyle and Kirk). The third, Paul, lives not far from me, as it turns out. We were not the fastest people on the course so we let people play through several times. However, we were quite likely the safest. We maintained at least a six foot distance and all four of us wore masks.

The two brother had to leave early so the third guy, Paul, and I finished the round the together. Just off the 18th green we chatted for a while about the unique nature of golf.

Paul observed, “The thing I love about golf is that every time you take a shot, you have a series of decisions you need to make – club selection, how to strike the ball, where to strike it, how to aim it, and so on. You can’t play golf without making a lot of decisions.”

Then I said, “That’s right but then the tricky part is that you have to execute the decisions. It would be great if all I had to do is make the decision and then let someone else execute the shot. So here’s an idea…if we play again, how about if I make all the decisions about your shots and you just do the shot and then you make all the decisions on my shots and I just do them?”

We both laughed.

Paul said, “You know, that’s why the pros have caddys. The caddy’s know the skills of the pro better than anyone else and know the course, too. Often they tell the pro how to hit the shot and the pro just executes it.”

That brief conversation has been stuck in my mind all day. At one level it is a fun and funny idea for a golf tournament. (Much better than playing night golf with only a glow-in-the-dark golf ball to guide you, which I’ve done once and will never do again. Too dangerous.) Here’s how it would work: You play as a team and you each make the game decisions for the other. Because you are competing as a team, each is going to make the best decision for their teammate they can. At a minimum, everyone would need to have a great sense of humor about the experiment. Now, I need to try to sell that idea to my golf course management. Hmmmm…

At another level the conversation is useful for understanding how we work with others. One way can be very hierarchical and uses heavy positional power: one person decides, the other person executes without questioning. This is the way things have been for a very long time in many organizations. The boss decides, the workers execute. Of course, if things go wrong it is usually blamed on the workers because they didn’t execute very well. Heaven forbid the decision making might have been poor, right?

Another way to see it is for understanding collaboration. Collaboration has to do with syncing up and working closely with at least one other person and usually several others. It is important for both (or all) collaborators to assume a collaborative posture. Pragmatically, even in collaboration, one person (or small group of people) may take the lead in assessing the situation, providing analysis, and offering solutions. The other person(s), with primary responsibility for “doing,” offers feedback, suggestions, and additional information the “decider” needs. In the end they actually make a decision together and the decisions are executed. In this approach, both share success and both share responsibility and accountablility.

In fact, this is actually how collaboration happens on the golf course between a caddy and their pro golfer. Ironically, the pro is often just the “doer” and the caddy is more in the “decider” role. The pro has extraordinary talents in execution and the caddy has extraordinary talents in assessment, analysis, and decision making. At the heart of the pro/caddy relationship is a phenomenal level of trust and respect. Of course, the pro gets all the accolades and the money. The really wise pro makes sure she or he pays the caddy very, very well.

Remember when we used to travel? Sometime last year when I was traveling for work, I found a film on Netflix that was delightful and very interesting. It is called Loopers: The Caddy’s Long Walk. I need to re-watch it now that this conversation is rolling around in my head. Check it out. I think you might like it too.

You know, the more I think about it, the more I like the caddy and pro golfer example as a pretty powerful illustration of collaboration. What do you think? Maybe I should spend a bit more time on the golf course developing it, eh?


missing hugs

I’ve been meeting each Thursday afternoon with a group of friends via Zoom for the purpose of simply maintaining human connection during the pandemic. Each week we have a “conversation starter” to kick things off, though, actually, we usually don’t really need one. This week the conversation starter had to do with maintaining connection during these times of social distancing. More specifically, we wondered how to respond when someone wanted to shake hands or give a hug? Or, even, if we wanted to give a hug to someone. As has become the norm for this close group, it was an interesting and wide-ranging conversation…and it is always difficult to end at just an hour.

Today I had an “aha” moment in the conversation. Since February I have not seen my son in person more than twice. Both times I dropped something off at his front door, rang his doorbell, then quickly stepped away to sthe idewalk to maintain appropriate distance. He would come outside and we’d talk from about 10 feet apart, still with masks.

The “aha” for me was the realization that both of these conversations ended in a way that they have never, ever ended before. From the time my son was born, I decided I would never let a day pass without telling him that I loved him and giving him a hug. To the best of my memory I never missed a day for as long as we shared a roof. Now that he is grown (soon to be 36), I don’t see him everyday anymore, however, each time I do see him our time together always ends with “I love you” and a hug. When we ended those conversations in front of his hous on those two times, the “I love you” was there but the hug was not. Today I figured out why it felt so strange and what was missing. I have a hole in my arms it puts one in my heart, too.

a holiday break…i think…maybe

Not that I’m obsessive or anything, but I have become a bit so with writing The Daily Drivel. I undertook this as personal therapy back on March 16 to help me manage my stress about the COVID-19 pandemic. After 109 (or is it 110?) consecutive daily blogs, I’m realizing four things:

  1. I really enjoy writing the blog. It has been an amazing exercise to try to create something each day that makes some sense and that people will actually read. The readership has grown, remained steady, and continues to grow, for which I’m really grateful.
  2. It really has helped me manage my own stress during this time. I can put down on virtual paper the things that are on my mind – whether they are rational or not. Then something magical happens: they vanish and, for the most part, are no longer stressful to me.
  3. I enjoy it so much that I don’t want it to become a chore. I don’t ever want to get to the point it it feels to me like I “have to” put out a blog. At that point it is no longer a joy but a chore.
  4. As much as I enjoy it, it is a lot of work. Plus, I also have a full-time consulting practice that takes about 8 to 10 hours each day, usually six or seven days a week and it is only getting busier. I usually take a writing break in the middle of the afternoon or I write at night when my other work is done.

To ensure that I continue to enjoy writing the blog and that it is relieving, not contributing to, my stress, I’m going to try to give myself permission to take an occasional break. “Try” is the operative word in that sentence because truly, I enjoy it.

The Independence Day long holiday weekend is a perfect time for me to experiment with trying to take a break for a few days. Therefore, I may be taking a break from writing The Daily Drivel over the Independence Day long weekend and will plan for the next one to appear on Tuesday. The operative word of this sentence is “may.” I will do my best but if I get inspired or bored or Clemencia needs me to get out of her hair for a while, you may get one on Saturday, Sunday, or Monday.

See you Tuesday…or maybe before…we’ll see.


chickenman – episode 75

Chickenman attaches himself to the passing airliner and tries to make pitstop on the plane.


This is that day

Today is July 2, 2020 and World UFO Day. Oh, wow, I love this kind of stuff! I grew up under the dark starry skies of the American Midwest. Each summer my friends and I, through 7th or 8th grade, would sleep out under the stars as often as we could to watch for UFOs. It was the era of the Bomb and UFO’s so anything was possible. We stay awake as long as we could hoping to see one. Never happened but we did, one night, cause an explosion so loud that it brought out the local fire department. But that’s a story for another day. Keep watching the skies!


Stay safe, be well, keep calm, keep washing your hands, keep wearing your mask, and keep striving for justice, peace, and health for all.

Tom

Day 73 – Stories of COVID-19 and Sheltering-In-Place

For every Stupid Person who ignores the rules that keep all of us safe, another person cannot enjoy the freedom that Stupid Person feels they alone are entitled.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020 – Live to Blog from Under a Sunny Cloud of Disappointment

Keeping Social Separation
Keeping Social Separation in the Time of COVID-19 – #alonetogether

Clemencia threw me out of the house today. Well, it wasn’t THAT dramatic! Actually, she invited me out of the house to go golfing. The golf course I play has been open since May 15th but I’ve been reluctant to venture out because of our risk level and the incredible spread of the pandemic in our community. However, with her encouragement I decided go play golf.


Join Liz Weaver and Me for Tenacity, Humility, and Collaborative Leadership on June 2nd

I’m honored to be joining my good friend and colleague, Liz Weaver, on a Tamarack Institute webinar titled Tenacity, Humility, and Collaborative Leadership. The webinar will be on Tuesday, June 2 from 1:00 to 2:00 PM Eastern via Zoom and it is FREE! All you need to do is sign up here.

Liz is the Co-CEO of the Tamarack Institute, an amazing social and community change organization based in Waterloo, Ontario. Their work on poverty reduction in Canada is extraordinary and if you don’t know them, you need to know them. Liz and I have collaborated on articles and projects in the recent past, but this is the first time we’ve done a webinar together. Anytime I get with Liz by phone or on Zoom, I always learn something new and come away with a stronger “can do” spirit. I’m honored and excited to be doing this webinar with her. Please check it out and please plan to join us. (P.S. Liz told me today that there are currently over 400 signed up. Come on in! The more the merrier!)


The Golf Outing That Wasn’t

When the golf course reopened on the 15th of this month I drove over to see how they were handling the re-opening. I was really impressed. No one was allowed in the club house. Golfers with memberships checked in on one side through a window and those who paid by the round signed in and paid at a window on the opposite side of the building. Everyone was required to wear a mask and everyone did. Distancing was practiced quite well by everyone. You could share a cart only if the person you were sharing with was someone who lived with you (e.g., spouse, child, family guinea pig, etc.). They were carefully following the protocols established by the state and the county. Remember, the golf course is in Prince George’s County which is the hottest COVID-19 hotspot in the hotspot that is all of the Metro DC area. Ironically, it is located less than a half-mile from the state’s COVID-19 temporary morgue, which you’d think would be a powerful reminder.

From that experience I decided it would be okay for me to try to play when the weather was warmer and I had a free day. That day was today. Early this morning Clemencia asked if I planned to go golfing. I was a bit non-committal because even though I did, I have been concerned about the risk and, even worse, bringing the virus home to her. When I got dressed, though, it was in golf shorts and shirt. By noon I was strongly leaning toward giving it a try. By 1:30 PM, after I had finished the “must do” work items for the day, I was actually anxious to go. Sensing that (well, actually, she caught me wearing my golf shoes in the house), Clemencia invited me to get out of the house. After I asked her “But are you sure?” about seven times, I finally left.

The parking was nearly full at the golf course, which was surprising for a Wednesday afternoon when most people are working. But, then, I realized many people were not yet back to work. In all, I was glad the golf course was getting the business.

However, as I got my equipment out of the car and started walking to the club house I began to notice the absence of masks, the absence of distancing, and the abundance of really Stupid People. I saw people whom I strongly suspected were not related sharing golf carts. I saw people standing and sitting around the club house in groups and without masks. To get to the check-in window I would have had be in the midst of them.

Then there was the straw – you know, the one that broke the camel’s back? One of the golf course maintenance workers was disinfecting the cars (which was good) but his mask was at or under his chin. It made for a lovely decoration but it was non-functional as a mask.

Without hesitation, I walked back to my car, loaded my golf bag, and drove back home. It was a deeply disappointing experience. I’m happy to report, I didn’t cry like a baby and pitch a tantrum. But a tear did trickle silently down my cheek.

What’s really amazing and which really infuriates me about this time we are in is not just that there are Stupid People – but that many are also selfish, self-centered, and seemingly entitled. For every Stupid Person who ignores the rules that keep all of us safe, another person cannot enjoy the freedom that Stupid People feel is their entitlement alone. Golf is not the only sport with Stupid People though. Tennis, pickleball, and basketball all have people who find ways around the rules to get on the court and play their games. This makes the also prime candidates for the Stupid People Hall of Fame.

Meanwhile, while Stupid People think only of themselves…

Today, at about 5:00 PM Eastern, the death toll in the United States from COVID-19 hit 100,000.

After all the Stupid People I saw last weekend in the news who were on the beaches and at parties, after all the Stupid People I saw at the golf course today, and after all the Stupid People I heard about this week, I am losing hope that we will get out of this without a death toll rivaling the Spanish Flu in 1918-1919 (which was 675,000 by the way).

God help us? Maybe. But maybe we could help God out by being less stupid.


The Adventures of Chickenman

Episode 41 – Join Chickenman as he christens the new Midland City Hall…kind of.


Song Parody Wednesday!

Cheryl from Pennsylvania, and avid reader of this blog (or so she says…oh, wait, maybe I paid her to say that?) wrote me to say how much she likes the song parodies. So, Cheryl, this is for you and everyone else that likes these as much as you and I do.

Let’s kick it off kids with Chris Mann, whose song parodies I’ve featured before, a singer and musician who came in 4th in the 2012 season of “The Voice” (another reality TV show I’ve never watched). Mann is originally from Wichita, Kansas where he turned down a really great offer to be a lineman.

This is a first time in the Fabulous Five for the Holderness Family. They are, well, a family that specializes in making music and music parodies and a bunch of other stuff. Strangely, they seem to make a living at it. More power to ’em!

The Kiffness, from South Africa, is no stranger to this blog though he does seem to be a little “stranger” than some of the other performers featured here. But then, they are all just a bit strange in their own way. This a fun one gang!

Whoa, look at that, the Holderness Family has another in this week’s Fabulous Five. I’m not really a fan of Disney music but this was fun to watch. I loved the costume changes midsong!

Finally, rounding out our Fabulous Five for this week is Raúl Irabién, from Mexico, who does one of the best COVID-19 parodies of Bohemian Rhapsody (my favorite song) that I’ve seen. Irabién has a terrific acapella group Invoca you can check out as well.

Why stop at five? Here’s a bonus parody from Randy Rainbow, perhaps the most prolific and political of the song parody-ists. (Is that a word?) And remember, DO NOT ingest household chemicals!

Stay safe, keep calm, keep washing your hands, keep wearing your mask, and keep an eye on the numbers as they go up. They aren’t stopping anytime soon.

Tom

Day 52 – Stories of COVID-19 and Sheltering-In-Place

She found one student, let’s call him Pirate Juan, who knew the game and was willing to participate in an hour long tutorial. Clemencia and Pirate Juan would play, the others would observe, and then give it try. That was weeks ago now.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020 – Live to Blog from a Battle Zone

#alonetogether

Today is the day it always happens. My loving, caring, pacifist spouse turns into the commander of a fleet of battleships. She takes no prisoners in a fiercely contested battle that rages over Zoom.


The Saga of Battleship Wednesday

As the dawn breaks Admiral Clemencia Vargas stands on the deck looking up into a foreboding sky. She shrugs, turns away, and steels herself for the calamity that lies ahead. In only a few hours she will launch her Zoom meeting controls, take command of a novice but dedicated crew, and lead them into the fray. Who will emerge victorious? What will be the toll on ships… and language?

Battleship (Batalla Naval) game board image by Marco Verch.

Yes, it’s Battleship Wednesday in our house! Each Wednesday, at 4:00 PM Eastern, Clemencia gathers a group of her students to play Batalla Naval (Battleship) in Spanish via Zoom. You know how it’s played, right?

Well, if you don’t know, it doesn’t matter. It all started because Clemencia was using occasional Batalla Naval exercises to teach her students vocabulary. However, there were several students who had never played Battleship. They just couldn’t seem to grasp the concept – even when the classes were still meeting in person way, way back in February. When the classes moved to Zoom, Clemencia wanted to still find a way to use Batalla Naval activities. She decided to have a Battleship tutorial.

She found one student, let’s call him Pirate Juan, who knew the game and was willing to participate in an hour long tutorial. Clemencia and Pirate Juan would play, the others would observe, and then give it try. That was weeks ago now.

Batalla Naval has turned into its own thing. Each week Clemencia produces a battleship grid on paper and distributes it to the students. As the Zoom meeting begins, the students take sides with her against Pirate Juan. (This week, though, for the first time, Pirate Juan had two students who defected to his team.) As the battle begins, so does the noise. I’m two rooms away and still I know when Clemencia’s fleet takes a hit and when they have a successful strike. There are roars of laughter, groans of dismay, and incesssant chatter with and among the students. Last week there were 14 who played. Even veterans of Batalla Naval are showing up now and re-enlisting to play.

Batalla Naval – Clothing & Colors

The grids Clemencia creates have Spanish terms on the left side and across the top. (See two of her recent game grids in the images.) First, the students and Pirate Juan place (draw) their ships on the top part of the grid (Mi ropa or Mis verbos). Each team, in turn, gets to “bomb” the others ships. They do this by indicating, in Spanish, where their bombs are being dropped on their opponents grid by calling out an item and a color (e.g, “La camisa es azul” – the shirt is blue). Where those two items intersect on the grid is where their bomb lands. Teams keep track of where their opponent’s bombs hit on their grid (top) and where they are dropping bombs on the other’s grid (bottom).

Batalla naval – Pronouns & Irregular Verbs

While the game etiquette does not suppress the noise of war, it does require opponents to truthfully report out to the other the result of their bombing – agua (water), tocado (hit), or, finally, hundido (sink).

In addition, Pirate Juan has to agree not to look at the other team’s collaborative Batalla Naval grid on Zoom. At first he didn’t have to. He was cleaning up each week. Recently, though, the tide has turned and now Pirate Juan has been getting thrashed. Perhaps this is why he has lured away a couple of others to be his crew. Dastardly Pirate Juan! You will pay for this treachery!

Batalla Naval Wednesday has taken on a life of its own now. It is the 7th Spanish class of the week for Clemencia. It is so popular I can only imagine – and fear – it will grow into other days and times of the week. So be it! I’ll just steer clear. Bert Left, Ernie Right, Winthrop Dijkstra-Baum and I will enjoy it from afar. Beto and Enrique prefer to be near the action.


Nonprofits in Crisis: A Wide Angle View

Madeleine McGee is the President of TogetherSC, South Carolina’s association for nonprofit organizations which is 800 members strong. Madeleine and TogetherSC inspired Forrest Alton, Cayci Banks, Charles Weathers, Patrick Jinks, and me to collaborate to produce the Leading Through Crisis blog and video series. In this video, Madeleine, while addressing some specific issues in South Carolina, also takes a wide-angle lens to the challenge of leading through crisis.


Getting to Transformational Change

My friend Elayne Greeley, whom I met through our common affiliation with Tamarack Institute, has a very unique gift. She is able to translate high level concepts into easy to understand, sensemaking graphics and images. Here is one of her pieces that breaks down challenges often facing community partnership efforts. It reminds us that transformational change is not something we can do all at once. When it is broken down into smaller manageable pieces, we get there faster than we could have ever imagined possible. Thanks Elayne for your good thinking, your good work, and for allowing me to share some of it here!

By Elayne Greeley, with appreciation to the Partnership Brokers Association

The View from Jeff

Jeff explains: As an introvert the idea of being stuck in my home for the foreseeable future wasn’t entirely unwelcome – I had great plans for how to use this time! Sadly it is not going as planned…

The Adventures of Chickenman

Now that he has exited the Chicken Cave, Chickenman (Benton Harbor) finds himself locked in the dark, official looking halls of Midland City City Hall. How is he to get out?


Stay safe, be well, keep calm, keep washing your hands, keep wearing you mask, and keep using your imagination for good!

Tom

A Word to the Wise & a Caution to Fools

Lao-Tzu, in his ancient wisdom, describes the kind of leaders we want to follow.

lao-tzu-bronzeToday 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!

Tom

The Challenge of Competing Ideas

“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.

“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 rear view 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.

When I completed the study, I promised everyone who participated that I would share a summary with them. If you are interested in reading it, you can find it here and are welcome to download it free of charge.

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.

Be greater, do good, everyday.

Tom

Listening for Crickets

Comedian and former host of the Late Late Show, Craig Ferguson once offered three communication tips in a popular stand-up comedy performance. They are strangely applicable to collaboration leadership…as well as having a happy relationship.

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.

Craig Ferguson & Geoff
Comedian Craig Ferguson with his Late, Late Show “side kick,” Geoff

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 meTruthfully…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 nowYou 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.

Tom Klaus

How’s Your Collaborative Posture?

Whether it is Collective Impact, or another collaboration framework, our collaborative posture is a critical underlying factor in success.

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.

Posture
How is Your Collaborative Posture?

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.

Vu Le of “Nonprofits with Balls,” has observed that, in many Collective Impact collaborations, “Equity gets shoehorned in as an afterthought…Budgets have been approved. Funding has been allocated. Agendas have been set without all the people who should have been there. The ship has sailed.” As much as I welcome and support the implementation of the Collective Impact Principles of Practice, I believe they will work so much better in the hands of practitioners who possess a genuine collaborative posture. Without the collaborative posture, I fear they are little more than a new checklist of things to do.

Tell me…what do you think?

Be Greater. Do Good. Everyday.

Tom Klaus

 

© 2016 by Thomas W. Klaus

Collective Leadership for Collective Impact

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. His solution is one that is still available to us today.

What do you do when you realize the monumental project you have undertaken will have to be finished without you? 

Sagrada Familia - Outside
Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain – October, 2015

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.

Nativity - Sagrada Familia
Nativity – Sagrada Familia – October, 2015

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.

Crucifix over Altar - Sagrada Familia
Altar crucifix, Sagrada Familia

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Be greater. Do good. Every day.

Tom Klaus

A Reflection on Reflective Leadership

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. 

Filling in for Tamarack's Liz Weaver, I got to facilitate
Filling in for Tamarack’s Liz Weaver, I had the privilege of facilitating “Collective Impact from Around the World,” which featured (from my left to right): Nicola Taylor (New Zealand); Valerie Quay (Singapore); Per Holm (Denmark); and, Te Ropu Poa (New Zealand).

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?

Be greater. Do good. Every day.

T.W.K.

Muckers, Spouters, and Collaborative Leaders

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?

Real Iowans by Grant Wood (1930): Notice, not flannel, Eldon, Iowa
Real Iowans by Grant Wood (1930): Notice, no plaid flannel. Eldon, Iowa

Imitation Iowan Carly Fiorina at the Iowa State Fair, 2015
Imitation Iowan: Carly Fiorina at the Iowa State Fair, 2015

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.

Real Iowan: Olympic gymnast, Shawn Johnson, West Des Moines, Iowa
Real Iowan: Olympic gymnast, Shawn Johnson, West Des Moines, Iowa. No plaid flannel here.

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.

Kurt Warner, NFL MVP 1999 & 2001, Burlington, Iowa
Real Iowan: Kurt Warner, NFL MVP 1999 & 2001, Burlington, Iowa. Still no plaid flannel.

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.

Tom Vilsack, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa
Real Iowan: Tom Vilsack, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. Nope, no plaid, no flannel on Mr. Secretary.

“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.

Be Greater. Do Good. Every Day.

Tom

Real Iowan: A guy who knows how hand-tie and wear bowtie, Morning Sun, Iowa
Real Iowan: A serious looking guy who owns no plaid flannel and knows how to hand-tie and wear bowties, Morning Sun, Iowa.