Reflections on Collaborative Leadership

cooperationAs much anguish as I have about the state of the world – hunger, social inequality, violence, environmental degradation, and more – I also am continually and repeatedly in awe and excitement about living during a time when so many of us are actively engaging with transcending the legacy that created these devastations. As unlikely as such a transformation is, I completely see the possibility of consciously and collectively co-creating a future. In this future, we learn to integrate all the hard-won lessons from our experiments with powerful technologies into a revived awareness of our place within the larger order of things. What it would look like none of us can truly envision, even though I keep hearing that the technologies that can support sustainable living on this one precious planet are already in existence and all that’s needed is political will. How we can get there is also mysterious, because no linear or planned approach has yet emerged that can handle the impossible-to-change web that ties so many dysfunctions together.

And, still, within all this, I continue to have complete conviction that change is possible, and to keep coming back to the same conclusion: what can get us to a new level of functioning as a species, where we can channel our enormous power to create and participate instead of consume and destroy, must include learning to collaborate with each other and within systems.

This is why I am so immensely curious about the explosion of interest in collaboration in the workplace that keeps popping up, and why I myself am putting more and more of my own energies in participating in that wave of action. Organizations, especially the large ones, are the most powerful entities on the planet, and all of our lives are affected by them. As one illustration, I recently heard of someone who aimed to go for a whole year without using anything produced by Monsanto, and how impossible that was to achieve.

Even more enormous is the effect on what we believe is possible. Just as much as talk about collaboration is exploding (more than double the entries on Google compared to domination), actual capacity to collaborate is amazingly low, both individually and systemically. The dominant ethos is still one of control (ten times more entries than collaboration) – of nature, of self, of others, and of outcomes. This quality of thinking is interfering with our ability to be effective collaborators and leaders.

Forcing Collaboration

One of the pitfalls of attempting to create collaboration from above is that wishing to collaborate doesn’t eliminate the power of the person at the top. For as long as the structures are such that the owner, boss, or team-leader has the formal authority to fire people, these people are in an extremely awkward position when, suddenly, they are invited into collaboration they never asked for. Without acknowledging the truth of the power difference, collaboration cannot be authentic.

It was an extraordinary moment to be present with Ruth (name and identifying details changed) when this reality dawned on her. Ruth has been attempting to bring more collaboration into her bustling clothing business for many months without sufficient traction. It’s been perplexing to her, and I also was puzzling over it. On a cursory look, why would anyone resist an opportunity to participate in shaping what their work life looks like? It was only when we peeled off some layers that we both saw it so clearly. Forced collaboration is not a whole lot more attractive than forced anything else, and especially when the clarity about what is or is not open for dialogue is missing or murky. Since that moment, Ruth has learned how much she was hiding behind a “we” that didn’t fully exist, without claiming what she now knows to be true: that the vision of the business is hers and that others are there in support of her vision, not theirs. Because of this, she has many items that are not truly negotiable and were presented as if they were, as if the result was or would be arrived at by everyone. She is breathing in relief to have the inner clarity about where she is and is not open to collaboration, and to what extent. Part of the relief is simply about being more honest with herself and others, which seems to also provide some relief for those others.

Reinventing OrganizationsThis is the first step, as far as I can tell. In any process of change, not just in Ruth’s business, we can only create effective change after we are able to see with courageous and compassionate clarity the truth of what is happening now, without pretending to self or other that anything is other than what it is. With this, Ruth is, perhaps, ready for the first time to ask herself the hard questions about what her true vision is. Whatever she finds that is non-negotiable, she can examine and explore. Again, this is not just for Ruth. I hope to always remember to do this myself, and that more and more of us will engage at this level. I just started reading a new book called Reinventing Organizations, where the author makes it abundantly clear that organizations can only evolve to the level of consciousness that their leaders have. How far can Ruth, can I, can any of you who are leaders of organizations, go towards truly embracing a collaborative framework? I anticipate coming back to this topic repeatedly to nurture my own and others’ learning in this fertile soil.

Lessons from the BayNVC Team

About a year ago the team supporting my work and BayNVC more generally went through a period of extreme stress. Putting together a new website (this one), launching a book (my first one: Spinning Threads of Radical Aliveness), having an article placed in the New York Times, and doing it all in parallel, could tax any team, let alone an understaffed team with a leader who prefers to focus elsewhere and is not wishing to be a manager. Still, all the way through the celebration dinner we all had the day the website was launched, I had a deep sense of confidence that the team came through this project with an intact sense of cohesion, trust, and commitment. I was unprepared to discover that the cost included some degree of frustration and complaints about me, which became known when I was invited to a meeting to discuss them. I didn’t want the bubble to explode; I wanted the fantasy of a perfect team to continue unchallenged, the fantasy in which no conflict ever occurs, or if it does we deal with it right then and there, and easily.

In the weeks between getting the invitation and having the actual meeting, I did some homework. I talked with people to help me face and move through my sense of dread. I invited those coming to the meeting to metabolize their frustrations so they could come to the meeting in an empowered mode, ready to share with me their respective visions for what they wanted, so that we could engage collaboratively. I knew, on a deeply felt sense, that directing frustrations at me was not only personally challenging. It also means leaving a certain kind of power only in my hands, whereas I long for a quality of a meeting of peers on the human plane even while recognizing, accepting, and embracing my own leadership within the team. As the only person within the team who is actually doing the work that earns all our salaries and as the primary person whose vision has been shaping the unfolding of what the team puts out to the world, I was and still am in a similar position to Ruth, where the functional relationship is not equal: it is my vision and my offerings that the team supports.

Within this context, the question of establishing useful collaboration became urgent: what could I do to make it easier to separate the functional from the structural sufficiently to allow the magic of productive collaboration to take place? Put differently, what helps people, in this context and by extension anywhere where there is a strong, visionary leader, to feel truly empowered to assert their views, to offer alternate proposals and visions, and to engage in a back and forth that results in a synergistic outcome that derives from the meeting of different perspectives? What can we all do, in such situations, to maintain the tension of differences without collapsing into resignation or overpowering so as to allow it to become generative?

I wish I had answers, and I only have small pointers. The meeting we had, and others that came afterwards, were extremely challenging for all of us in different ways. There were days during which I was close to giving up. As much vision and energy as I have, I’ve had struggles with faith for a very long time. As profoundly committed as I am to authenticity, I’ve suffered many devastating losses because my authenticity didn’t strike others as sufficiently caring for them. Both of these perennial struggles of mine were painfully present during that period of time.

The one clear pointer that I have, which I am still chewing on for some time now, since before these meetings and even more so afterwards, is how tricky it is to reach wholehearted willingness and to know when it’s there and when it isn’t. Without wholehearted willingness, collaboration becomes a charade, or is forced on someone. Either way, the apparent collaboration is at a cost that someone will pay the price for sooner or later. In our team here, all of us paid the price. I wasn’t aware of the cost, because I wasn’t told. I wasn’t told not because of any kind of individual failing on the part of whoever didn’t tell me; I wasn’t told because we didn’t have enough structural support in place for this kind of dissent and pushback to be seen as a regular flow. As Dominic Barter taught me, any system that isn’t set up with conscious intent inherits the cultural norms, for better or worse. In this case: the norms of how we relate to power.

Much has happened since those meetings, including people joining the team and people leaving town and therefore no longer being part of the team. I also went through my sister Inbal’s final months, during which time I was only minimally available, and then through my mini-sabbatical that just ended recently. Without any of it being a conscious intention, losses and absences shaped the team in new ways. I may be deluding myself, and discover new layers of unexpressed costs; that is always a possibility. And I’d like to believe that we learned something together that is allowing for a more honest collaboration, where I have more willingness to accept the partial terms of the collaboration, and others are more willing to challenge me productively.

There is no particular end to this story. I don’t have to have everything neatly packaged in order to share with you. I tend to think that partial lessons can also be useful, and that sharing of struggles humanizes the experience. We can only learn, collectively, if we allow transparency about our personal challenges to come through, or else we are posturing, and reinforcing for all others the myth that everyone else is doing fine except each of us individually.

Reweaving Our Human Fabric

I come back, as I wind down this piece, to the state of things in the world. The vast majority of people go to work as a pure exchange in which they rent out their toil, body, and mind in exchange for a paycheck. They do not participate in deciding what they produce or how. It is now understood and assumed that there are menial, meaningless jobs to be done, and therefore someone, many someones, will need to do them. If any of this is to be changed, if we are to create a world in which most people feel connected to their work as a source of meaning, we will clearly need to revamp the way work is now organized.

Reweaving Final front cover smallClearly, I believe such a way is possible. I have a new book coming out in a week, on Feb 19, Reweaving Our Human Fabric: Working Together to Create a Nonviolent Future, which contains fictional stories “from the future” about how life and work are reorganized around principles of collaboration and willingness. As much as it’s hard for me to have faith in specific moments, I have a huge faith overall: that everything that truly needs to be done can be done with wholehearted willingness on the part of someone. In that context, there likely won’t be many unsatisfying full-time jobs, as work will be restructured in ways that maximize meaning and usefulness of what’s being produced and served, and as any job that no one wants to do full-time or permanently can be done as a community service on a rotational basis (some of the stories in the book include more specific details.)

Meanwhile, on planet Earth, now, I am putting more and more of my energy into supporting the shift to collaborative leadership. My most recent new offering is a series of Collaborative Leadership Coaching Calls. These are weekly calls for organizational leaders at all levels: people who truly want to delve into how to make collaboration work in the real world, not just on paper or in workshop settings. The group is currently quite small and I welcome anyone who wants to join. The learning that’s happened so far in two meetings has been profound. I have no illusions this, by itself, will change the larger systems within which we operate. I do believe that the more of us who know how to collaborate – from above, sideways, and from below – the more chances we have of making it.

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To discuss this and other posts with Miki and fellow readers of this blog, check in to the free Fearless Heart Teleseminars. The next ones are on Sunday Feb 15 10:30am-noon, Tuesday Feb 17 5:30-7pm, and Sunday mornings March 8 and April 5, all Pacific Time.

Images: Top: Cooperation by Marina del Castell, unmodified, CC license
Middle: book cover from here
Bottom: Reweaving book cover by Mili Raj for Fearless Heart Publications

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3 thoughts on “Reflections on Collaborative Leadership

  1. Dave Belden

    I do agree with you that a lot of the difficulty in cooperating in nonprofits comes from assumptions about shared purpose in the absence of clarity about power within the nonprofit, (and also about power over it by its funders). However there’s something else: as people awaken to the very idea that they could cooperate in service of their own dreams, goals, and needs, sleeping forces awaken in them that they have perhaps never had the chance to learn how to express, let alone to manage, to channel into effective action, and so on: it’s inchoate and disruptive, passionate and little understood by the person undergoing the awakening, let alone by their supervisor or visionary leader. Being told by the leader or by a collective exactly what is up for grabs and what isn’t, where cooperation is asked for and where it isn’t, is helpful to the individual going through this. Any kind of unrealistic idealism by the leader or collective about there being more areas open to cooperation than truly are open is just adding fuel to the flames. This is just to fill out what you were writing I think, or maybe it adds another dimension to it — the dimension of the awakening incoherent longings of the staff or new members of a collective.

  2. Claude Emond

    I am deeply touched by what you wrote here, Miki, as it resonates so much with my beliefs and also with my own experience with collaboration.
    I have much anguish too with respect to the state of this world, as I truly believe we won’t make it as a species in this century, without this collaboration mindset.
    I try to stay positive as I try to endorse the Spiral Dynamics model and the major switch towards the necessary collaborative world it forecasts with much certainty. I also try to convince myself that the millennial mindset of the Y generation (collaborate to change the world for a better,happier and sustainable world) and the collective mindset of the Z generation are shared by their majority and will save this world… through a non-violent massive shift in decision making power from those 80 or so power mongers who control most of the wealth of the world towards the «willing» crowds.
    I have many doubts, as the millennial mindset might not be that well comprehended and adhered to by those increasing numbers in the «crowds» living day after day with horrible death threatening hunger, sickness, in complete poverty, and in a state of survival and despair that feeds more and more senseless wars, not only in Syria and other countries so far from us that they are just news on TV, but also economic wars at home where the poor gets poorer and the rich just piles wealth in complete denial that all this personal wealth cannot protect oneself from imminent extinction.
    I have worked very hard in the past decade or so to design ways to develop collaborative approaches that trigger the desire to work together and accelerate the emergence of collaborative cultures in all kind of organizations. Two of the sentences you wrote completely haunt me as they ring so true in the face of my own experience: «Organizations can only evolve to the level of consciousness that their leaders have.»…and «Without wholehearted willingness, collaboration becomes a charade, or is forced on someone.».
    I promote collaborative frameworks and rules, the all encompassing rule being that «you cannot create a collaborative culture without using an approach that is inherently collaborative» and the realization that you do not change anything collectively if there is no collective desire to change.
    A collaborative culture can only emerge from this wholehearted willingness you wrote about; it can in no way be dictated. And this willingness is only possible if our existing status quo becomes unbearable and of no benefit for all concerned.
    Just as you did, I decided to go «social media» last summer by putting on line my own website dedicated to promoting collaboration in families, in communities, in enterprises, everywhere. I, as you did, started writing a book with the purpose of fostering the emergence of «viral» collaboration.
    This is a lot of work and, paradoxically, often lonely work. But as I read you, it reminds me that more and more people are doing what we do and that it is just a matter of time before many more join this informal «tribe» of humans full of good intentions and moved by the same purpose to «collaborate to make this world and better, happier and sustainable for all of us».

    So thank you Miki for having written this. It reminds me of the huge challenge that switching to universal collaboration represents. And it also reminds me that I am not alone and that the «tribe» is growing and building momentum. Cheers from Montreal

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