Collective Leadership, Shared Stories

Posted by Lissa Widoff on Monday, April 14 2014


Lissa Widoff

Each and every one of us can lead, regardless of our position, level of authority or perceived leadership role.  It is possible to influence the course of a collaborative effort or decision-making process simply by being curious, asking questions to illuminate subtle contrasting viewpoints that may not otherwise be brought to the surface, especially in collective and multi-party efforts.  Similarly, to get others to care about the work you do, they have to care about YOU, which can happen if you tell stories about your work and why YOU care.  These were a couple of distillations from the Collective Leadership and Storytelling workshops the Switzer Foundation held for Fellows recently in Oakland, CA, and Cambridge, MA. We had nearly 50 attendees across the two workshops, with Fellows from diverse sectors including global energy consulting, water resource management in Los Angeles, urban planning, biology, community conservation in Latin America, engineering and other public and private sector work.  These workshops were piloted as an alternative to our past topical spring retreats.

Jack Ricchiuto speaks to Fellows at our spring retreatThe dynamic work environments and on-the-ground projects Fellows are engaged with provided real world case examples for how to diagnose the challenges and opportunities within collective or collaborative leadership environments. What do you do in fixed hierarchies versus leaderless coalitions? How do you work in teams within a corporate structure versus across organizations? How can you unearth some of the hidden barriers to change that never get acknowledged in our quest for consensus?  The more aware we are of the relationships in and across our organizations, and understand how knowledge and power flows, we can ask questions, encouraging dialogue and bringing to the surface the often sticky issues that remain hidden in group settings that block or hinder true progress.

The Collective Leadership workshop trainer, Carole Martin, who has years of experience in supporting and facilitating networked leadership efforts and training for same, drew on participants’ experiences and offered a variety of resources. Some of the engaging take-away lessons included:

  • Our environmental problems are complex, and reflect their placement in larger systems change. Many challenges in problem solving result from our failure to fully understand the larger system, and therefore mischaracterizing the problem. We can't truly solve problems within our silos of expertise, so we must learn to work in new kinds of structures for collaboration.
  • While stakeholder engagement is a omon aim in colletive efforts, we often collude in remaining silent about real interests and goals, which can serve to undermine or slow down progress. Learning to ask questions in neutral ways give the opportunity to engage in more useful discussions.
  • Network thinking can help us diagnose the flow of knowledge and power; who are the hubs of knowledge, who is a gatekeeper, and who is on the periphery? If we begin to view our organizational and collaborative structures as networks, we might find that effective leadership is found within the center of “dense” networks of connections, and not necessarily with the positional leader. Tools such as Social Network Analysis can describe these relationships and outcomes may change over time. Quite often, the most dynamic part of a network is on the periphery, where new connections exist and can represent the growing edge of our own thinking and perception of how a problem can be solved. Working the "edge" can enrich collaborative efforts.
  • Curiosity is a powerful strategy for building collaborative efforts.  If we assume that there is always more to learn and understand, we can engage more deeply, creating a broader base of common understanding for action.
  • While collaborative efforts seemingly take longer to achieve outcomes, there is good reason for this, having to do with all of the above and more – it takes time to build relationships, there is much to gain by being a “host” rather than a “hero” (see Margaret Wheatley’s article: Leadership in the age of complexity: From Hero to Host), and complex problems are part of a larger, networked system that we must strive to understand in order to effect change, regardless of our particular issue. 
  • A website with a toolbox of strategies for breaking down barriers to collective leadership can be found at Liberating Structures.

Fellows collaborating at our spring retreatWhether we find ourselves in "breakthrough" projects that require new connections and ways of thinking, or long-standing working relationships within our organizations, we always need to engage others in our work, and the most meaningful way to connect with others is through our stories. The second day of our workshop weekends focused on storytelling – what are the elements of a good story, and how to prepare a portfolio of stories that can be developed, adapted and embellished for different purposes to get our work across in a human and engaging way.  As workshop leader, Jack Ricchiuto said “People bond because of stories, not transactions; and funders fund stories, not programs”.

"As with other communications workshops we have held, the crucial importance of preparation resounded again. Although good stories often have a "complication" (the hook in a story) and a resolution, the depth of emotion or feeling is what helps people connect with the story and therfore your cause. For scientists who have been taught to remove emotion and insert objectivity into their decisions and communications, this approach can be a revelation.

"Nevertheless, many scientists and experts have a terrific knack for using story to persuade, to engage and to relate to constituencies. Jack’s book, The Stories That Connect Us, lays out the kinds of strategies that can be used to continue to develop and refine our communications and heartfelt beliefs to effect the positive change we want to see in the world.

We look forward to continuing to offer these kinds of workshops to Fellows in the future – both as a means for helping us network across our issues and leadership challenges and to deepen our skills and capacity to lead in these challenging times.

Add comment

Log in to post comments

A vibrant community of environmental leaders