What type of leadership is needed for wise outcomes to emerge from the engagement of communities and organizations? Some friends and colleagues are meeting this week in Belgium to ponder this question. I was also at a conference this week – “Changing Community Systems through Collaboration” where in many ways the same question was being asked. And the answer they came up with is about the importance of letting go of the ‘expert’ leader model and of inviting instead, diverse stakeholders to grapple with best solutions to complex issues along with them. Margaret Wheatley says,
“A leader is anyone who wants to help at this time. In fact, in this day and age, when problems are increasingly complex, and there simply are not simple answers, and there is no simple cause and effect any longer, I cannot imagine how stressful it must be to be a leader and to pretend that you have the answer. And a life-affirming leader is one who knows how to rely on and use the intelligence that exists everywhere in the community, the company or the school or the organization. And so these leaders act as hosts, as stewards of other people’s creativity and other people’s intelligence. And when I say host, I mean a leader these days needs to be one who convenes people, who convenes diversity, who convenes all viewpoints in processes where our intelligence can come forth. So these kinds of leaders do not give us the answers, but they help gather us together so that together we can discover the answers.” >Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World, Berrett-Koehler Publisher
The ability of a community to collaborate is eroded by fragmentation into parts – diverse social networks with different values, vocabularies, histories, goals and purposes. Social complexity increases fragmentation. The greater the number of stakeholders, the more views exist about the nature of the issue (i.e., what the problem or opportunity really is), and the appropriate response.
“Fragmentation“, says Jeff Conklin, CogNexus Institute, “suggests a condition in which the people involved see themselves as more separate than united, and in which information and knowledge are chaotic and scattered. The fragmented pieces are, in essence, the perspectives, understandings, and intentions of the collaborators. Fragmentation, for example, is when the stakeholders in a project are all convinced that their version of the problem is correct. Fragmentation can be hidden, as when stakeholders don’t even realize that there are incompatible tacit assumptions about the problem, and each believes that his or her understandings are complete and shared by all.”
Collaboration is enabled by increasing the coherence of the group of stakeholders around an issue. Through respectful learning and inquiry, the shared base of understanding of the issue is built up, as is the shared commitment to wise action. Social coherence is the recognized sense of a larger integrity, unity or wholeness among the parts. It results in collective intelligence, where a larger picture than one’s initial view emerges from understanding the different needs, interests, language, roles, positions and interpretations of all the stakeholders. Collective capacity is another outcome of social coherence – the ability of stakeholders to generate and act on, or at least to recognize and agree upon, a mutually acceptable response to a complex issue.