For some years now, I’ve been learning through ongoing experimentation what collaborative leadership means. It’s not been easy, because our either/or lens on reality renders the space between coercive leadership and no leadership elusive, almost invisible. Which is not to say it’s not there, as so many successful leaders know. What it means is that we lack forms, models, and habits of collaborative leadership which are essential for transforming the way we use power and how we respond to power and leadership.
In my own experiments, I have brought forth an endless dedication to empowering people when I lead, a deep commitment to transparency in my leadership style, and enormous willingness to work with what ensues when people wake up to their power. The results have often been bewildering. More often than not, it seems that the more explicitly I invite people to self-responsibility and participation, the more effortful I find the process of facilitating and the more I hear disappointment and even criticism and judgment of my choices. At other times, when I present and follow a clear structure with limited participation in shaping the content or outcome of the event - whether it be a training or a staff retreat I facilitate - people appear to be much more satisfied and my work appears dramatically easier.
This past week I led my first of three retreats of Leveraging Your Influence Using NVC - the new program I started this year. Given the purpose of this program, it was particularly important to me to invite others to co-create with me. In working through what happened over the six days that we were together, I was able, for the first time, to have some beginning understanding about the puzzle related to my own efforts at collaborative leadership. As I know that many others are doing their own experiments with collaborative leadership, perhaps what I learned may be of use.
Power and Interdependence
In the traditional models we have inherited, power resides outside us, usually attributed to the designated leader. Even as we seek to transform the world, we continue to act as if this is true. I cannot count the number of times when I hear from people, be it participants at a workshops or employees in an organization I support, that it never occurred to them to attempt to shape the outcome of a decision or an event when one thing or another didn’t work for them. They implicitly assume that they have no power and no “right” to power. I have seen this dynamic happen even in response to explicit invitations on my part to participate. By virtue of my making a request from a position of power, many hear it as a demand and respond accordingly by resentfully submitting or defiantly rebelling.