Collaboration as Leadership: A Modest Approach to Re-Humanizing the Workplace

The hands of God and Adam from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel — public domain image

“To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know that even one life has breathed easier because you have lived — that is to have succeeded.”

In the nearly 40 years since I first read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote above, I have spent considerable time in conversations with vastly different people talking about how to leave the world a bit better. The bold idea that success can be equated with making the world a bit better seems to be widely shared and passionately pursued by an astonishing variety of people. Emerson is generous in his criteria for making the world better: a healthy child, a garden patch, a redeemed social condition, etc. I have tried so often to work on larger scales and in so doing I have overreached and been humbled in my attempts. But still, improving the world at larger levels seems to be called for today. When attempting to work on larger scales I have learned to hold the idea of making the world better as more of a guiding star for my efforts than an actual destination that I can reasonably expect to reach. Being humbled in my grand attempts has led me to believe that if we want to cope with the enormous complexity of the challenges we have created for ourselves, then we need to couple our bold ideas with modest approaches. We need ways of working that are within the reach of ordinary people. Approaches that can be easily to put into practice by anyone anywhere who wishes to help.

The purpose of Collaboration as Leadership is to re-humanize the workplace.

Over the past year, I’ve been working with three gifted colleagues: Antonio Linares, Etienne Collignon, and Marion Chapsal on something we’ve been calling Collaborative Leadership — or more recently, Collaboration as Leadership — it’s constantly morphing as we gain more experience with it. The purpose of Collaboration as Leadership is to re-humanize the workplace. We posit that perhaps the most powerful thing we can do as individuals or as groups is to become aware of when we are dehumanizing other people and find ways grant them legitimacy. It’s a bold idea; some might even call it idealistic. However, seeing another human being as a human being is the essence of being human. It takes no special skills. However, it does take courage.

The foundational premise of Collaborative Leadership is that if you give people good tools, appropriate facilitation, and adequate time, they can work together to solve even the most complex challenges. It’s a bold idea that we’ve coupled with a modest approach based on a simple tool called Collaborative Conversations. Collaborative Conversations maps out the four different kinds of conversations required for any group to define a mutually desired future and then plot a course for successfully creating that future.

Conversation is how we create understanding and build relationships. Relationships and understanding are the basis for bringing world-size problems down to human-size abilities.

Collaborative Leadership asserts that if we can learn to master the skills of Collaborative Conversations in handling our daily lives and our routine work, then if we find ourselves called to leave the world a bit better than we found it, we can apply what we’ve learned about small scale collaboration to the larger issues that we’re facing. It begins with the simple yet profound recognition that conversation is how we create understanding and build relationships. Relationships and understanding are the basis for bringing world-size problems down to human-size abilities.

Collaborative Leadership is not a single leader getting others to collaborate. It is each of us learning how to work and play well with other people when we are not necessarily in a position of authority. It is using our personal integrity, reputation, and standing coupled with our commitment to something the whole group is invested in creating, that grants us the influence and the ability to positively affect the outcome of the ventures we are engaged with. Collaborative Leadership is what is called for in times of great complexity and uncertainty. It asks us to step up when we have something useful to contribute and to step back and support others when we recognize that they have a piece of the puzzle that we lack. It also requires us to soak in the often uncomfortable energy of “not knowing” long enough for us to generate viable pathways forward.

Collaboration as leadership recognizes that it is up to us to pull together and find our way through the very personal challenges in our lives and work by creating relationships where we listen to understand, rather than to argue, agree or persuade. Where we invite in and honor the voices that have traditionally been marginalized: women, people of color, the very old, the very young, the poor, those who are not eloquent, those who do not think quickly, but who need time to process, those who ask difficult questions, those who dissent from the status quo.

Collaboration as Leadership invites in and honors the voices that have traditionally been marginalized: women, people of color, the very old, the very young, the poor, those who are not eloquent, those who do not think quickly, but who need time to process, those who ask difficult questions, those who dissent from the status quo.

Collaboration as Leadership flourishes in communities of practice where it is accepted as a given that conversations are how we:

• Build meaningful relationships with each other (humanize)

• Explore what is possible together (include)

• Coordinate our efforts in any endeavor (collaborate)

• Learn how to improve (build our competence)

Collaboration as Leadership recognizes that perfection is not only unattainable, it also encourages rigidity rather than flow and resilience. It seeks instead to broaden our range of options by playing with the boundaries of our thinking instead of inside of them. It recognizes that people are social, that we all have bodies, and our bodies react according to the emotions that are evoked when we come together. It is undeniable, yet rarely taken into account, that while we are not all subject to the same range of thinking, we are all subject to the same range of emotions, and it is our emotions that bring us together in harmony or split us apart in polarity. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to learn how to foster the emotions that increase our intelligence when we come together in groups, so that we can make better decisions. Such awareness is not something that can be accomplished by thinking. It requires us to attend to the signals our bodies are sending us. Collaborative Leadership is an embodied experience not a conceptual exercise.

It is incumbent upon us to learn how to foster the emotions that increase our intelligence when we come together in groups, so that we can make better decisions.

Collaborative Leadership eschews the judgments of right and wrong, substituting instead the inquiry of, “Are we making things better or are we making them worse?” And it follows that question with: “What are we learning together, and how do we adapt our actions based on what we are learning in order to leave the world a little bit better for our having lived?”

We invite you to come and join us in exploring how to apply and embody Collaboration as Leadership. We have two workshops coming up in Europe in May 2017.

Click below for more information.

May 18 and 19 in Madrid Spain

May 29 in Paris France

Grateful acknowledgment to Nancy Margulies for the use of her artwork. Merci to Marion Chapsal for her input and feedback on this post.