Muckers, Spouters, and Collaborative Leaders

Here we go again. It is the Quadrennial Quest for the next “great” leader of the United States. It is too bad we are fixated on a Presidential leadership model that has not worked well in the recent past and increasingly holds little hope for the future. Are we ready to embrace a different approach to leadership that is a better practice now and in the future?

Real Iowans by Grant Wood (1930): Notice, not flannel, Eldon, Iowa
Real Iowans by Grant Wood (1930): Notice, no plaid flannel. Eldon, Iowa
Imitation Iowan Carly Fiorina at the Iowa State Fair, 2015
Imitation Iowan: Carly Fiorina at the Iowa State Fair, 2015

It does not appear so, according to the coverage of the approximately 20 Presidential candidates mucking their way through my beloved Iowa State Fair and spouting their solutions for every issue imaginable during this past week. Yes, mucking and spouting…spouting and mucking, ad nauseam. By the way, my favorite imitation of an Iowan from this week’s coverage was performed by Republican candidate Carly Fiorina. Fiorina appeared in a photo at the Iowa State Fair in front of the famous Butter Cow dressed in a plaid flannel shirt and blue jeans. Please. What idiot campaign aide told her THAT would be a good idea? Just to set the record straight, I’m including some random photos of what REAL Iowans look like and how they dress on the job. But I digress.

The United States, and most other countries, are locked into a mythic model of leadership known formally as the “Great Man” theory. In the 1970’s “Transformational Leadership” theory was introduced by James MacGregor Burns as an alternative way to think about leaders. Transformational Leadership became, and remains very popular, though it still retains many elements of the Great Man theory because of its dependence on a single individual to lead the way and call forth the inner leader of others.

Real Iowan: Olympic gymnast, Shawn Johnson, West Des Moines, Iowa
Real Iowan: Olympic gymnast, Shawn Johnson, West Des Moines, Iowa. No plaid flannel here.

I am convinced we will not make real progress in being greater and doing greater good until we renounce our heretical faith in the power of a single great leader. The velocity of knowledge and the complexity of our world are forcing us to consider other approaches. For me, shared leadership in a collaborative culture is more realistic and hopeful.

Recently I again observed the power of shared leadership and collaboration in action. For the past two summers I have taught “Managing for Optimal Performance” in the MBA in Economic Development program at Eastern University. It has been a small class, only three and four students, possibly because the focus on the program is on alleviating poverty which is certainly not the typical career path for many MBAs. The course is very short…barely six weeks. Yet, in that time, students are expected to design, deliver, and report out on a project that is intended to help people living at or near the poverty level. This summer’s projects included a soccer clinic for Haitian immigrant youth; distribution of nutritional information and recipes at an urban farmer’s market; a family photo project for immigrant Latin American single mothers and their children; and a “good neighbor” yard clean up and home fix-up day for a single mom recently debilitated in an accident. In all cases, the students were required to form a team of no less than four people and to use decision making processes that were inclusive and collaborative. The project reports clearly showed the depth of understanding the students’ acquired about establishing a collaborative culture and using shared leadership.

Kurt Warner, NFL MVP 1999 & 2001, Burlington, Iowa
Real Iowan: Kurt Warner, NFL MVP 1999 & 2001, Burlington, Iowa. Still no plaid flannel.

As I reflected on their project journals and reports, I found myself thinking about those things I am most likely to hear come from the mouths of leaders who really try to practice shared and collaborative leadership.

“Please.” Collaborative leaders do not just assume people will follow them because they have the title, the position, the power, or even a “mandate.” They invite others into leadership, humbly seek their expertise, and genuinely value the contribution each makes.

“How or what do you see, understand, experience, or believe about our situation?” For collaborative leaders, the perspectives of others are invaluable sources of information. They understand that many of the problems we face are so large and so complex that the better solutions are found when many eyes from diverse viewpoints are examining them.

“What options do you believe offer us the best chance of addressing the situation?” Working in collaboration means gleaning the best ideas from among the many perspectives on the situation without regard for self-interests. I know. If I had not thrown in that bit about self-interests, it would have been just fine, right? My experience has been that partners in shared or collaborative leadership often filter their ideas in order to protect self-interests. They may fear giving away proprietary information or trade secrets that can weaken their competitive advantage over competitors, who may also be their collaborators on some projects.

Tom Vilsack, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa
Real Iowan: Tom Vilsack, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. Nope, no plaid, no flannel on Mr. Secretary.

“Thank you.” These two under-utilized words powerfully acknowledge that a single individual alone is not responsible for any good thing that happens. These are words of humility that indicate a collaborative leader’s awareness of the role of others.

“We did it.” This is a tricky thing for a collaborative leader to say because it is so tempting to say it without really meaning it. It can merely sound like an imitation of humility, if it does not come from a genuine posture of humility. Know what I listen for? Emphasis. When I hear the word “we” emphasized too strongly, I suspect leaders are trying too hard to convince themselves and others that they really mean “we” and not “I.”

Spewing from the mouths of muckers and spouters, these same five phrases can be just empty words in a crass imitation of humility. Whether the speakers are vying for the role of President, Prime Minister, or leader of a local community change effort, we must watch and wait. We need to be on the lookout for those who reveal their collaborative nature through the congruence of consistently matching these words with a posture of humility.

Be Greater. Do Good. Every Day.

Tom

Real Iowan: A guy who knows how hand-tie and wear bowtie, Morning Sun, Iowa
Real Iowan: A serious looking guy who owns no plaid flannel and knows how to hand-tie and wear bowties, Morning Sun, Iowa.

Redden Your Nose and Join In or Do Even More?

Today is Red Nose Day. “Say what?” you ask.

Red Nose Day is a big thing in the United Kingdom and it has been for 30 years where it has raised billions of British pounds to end poverty. It is a part of the United Kingdom’s Comic Relief charity. “Oh, I remember Comic Relief,” you say, “but isn’t that OUR (the American’s) thing?” Uh, not really. We stole borrowed the idea from the Brits and now we are borrowing Red Nose Day, too, but this time it only took us three decades. NBC is taking the credit for bringing Red Nose Day to the United States. The television network partnered with Walgreens to sell the red noses that I am modeling in this classy photo of myself. Tonight, May 21, NBC is featuring a 3 hour broadcast (think “mini” telethon but without Jerry Lewis) to raise awareness and money.

Hey! It's Red Nose Day! Where's Yours?
Hey! It’s Red Nose Day! Where’s Yours?

Though my Inner Clown compelled me to buy this $1.00 red nose the last time I was in my local Walgreens, it was never very clear to me if this was more than a marketing ploy for Walgreens and a ratings push for NBC. I am still not sure. Frankly, the promotion on the U.S. version of Red Nose Day has seemed more about NBC, its stars and programs, and Walgreens products and services and far less about the cause. (Look, I do understand cause-related-marketing but you still have to highlight the cause, too.) Until you take the cellophane off the nose and read the odd “cut-out”-like information piece that is attached to it, you might not even know which charities stand to benefit from Red Nose Day. To really learn what your Red Nose purchase supports you have to go to the official Red Nose Day website where I found this explanation:

The funds raised during the Red Nose Day campaign will be given to a variety of nonprofit organizations that transform children’s lives. This year we’ve partnered with twelve amazing organizations working in the US and abroad. The great news is the half the money distributed will be spent right here in the US at projects close to home. The other half will be spent in some of the poorest communities in the world in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

However, for me, the clearest explanation of the purpose of Red Nose Day came from an NBC Entertainment promotional site:

The aim of Red Nose Day is to bring about real and lasting change by tackling the root causes of poverty and social injustice.

Now, THAT’s a cause I can really get behind.

Nonetheless, I had secretly wondered if my mild addiction to collecting red noses had led me to unwittingly add to the profits of two big businesses. My angst was increased when I read that only 50 cents of my $1.00 red nose purchase would actually go to the charities listed as beneficiaries of the effort and the remainder would be invested in nose production. Given the scale of production required to supply so many red noses to Walgreens all across the country, I find it hard to believe they really cost 50 cents each to produce. Five cents seems more realistic. Obviously, I could do far more by simply going to each charity’s website and contributing $1.00 directly to each of them. In fact, I could double my contribution by sending the same $1.00 to them that I spent on the cheap red nose at Walgreens…except I would not have the red nose for my collection.

Ouch! That pricks my conscience. It seems like I am not really different than the many others who need to get something in return for investing in a cause. Some people need their name on a building. I simply need a new red nose for my modest collection.

Last night I attended a celebration of the work of Dr. David Greenhalgh, the Director of the PhD in Organizational Development program at Eastern University where I received my doctorate. David is retiring, in his words, “on August 31 at 11:59 PM” and the PhD Summer Residency dinner included a tribute in which students and alumni were present to participate. It was a great party! The after dinner speaker was Dr. Joanne Ciulla, from the Jepson School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond. She is known for her work and writing on ethical leadership and she spoke briefly and engagingly on the topic of “The Ethical Peculiarities of Leadership.” She observed that ethical leaders can be ineffective and effective leaders can be unethical. If we wish to be both ethical and effective we need to examine our leadership actions with these four questions:

  • Am I doing the right thing?
  • Am I doing it the right way?
  • Am I doing it for the right reason?
  • Am I using what I have learned?

I applaud the leadership efforts of NBC and Walgreens and the followership efforts of all of us (even if we are just wanting to merely add to our red nose collections) for falling in behind Red Nose Day. I love it that the cause is “tackling the root causes of poverty and social injustice.” I wonder, though, if we might learn from our efforts this year and improve upon them next year by thoughtfully considering the first three questions from Dr. Ciulla. Perhaps NBC and Walgreens can make it more about the cause than about pushing programming, stars, and products. Perhaps I can add a red nose to my collection and still contribute directly to each of the charities.

Indeed, what more can we all do? 

Be Greater. Do Good. Every Day. (with or without a red nose)

Tom

The Unintended Consequences of “Five Words of Gratitude”

After I published my last full blog asking “What if…?” I pursued a little “what if?” of my own that has had profound and delightful unintended consequences. I had read an article in the New York Times about the Webby Awards which are given out each year by the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences. I was fascinated by a rule of the Webby Awards that is enthusiastically enforced by booing audience members: no acceptance speech can be more than five words long. Wow! It makes me actually want to watch the Webby Awards program!

The article offered several exemplary brief speeches, including these four that I particularly like:

  • “Had we lost, we’d sue.” American Bar Association Journal in 2008.
  • “Making life terrible for dictators.” Human Rights Watch in 2010.
  • “Donating my unused word.” Corporate Social Responsibility Amalgamated in 2012.
  • “The Oscars should do this.” Actor Kevin Spacey in 2013.

Inspired by the Webby Award’s succinct acceptance speeches, I began to wonder: What if…I asked people to express Heart of Gratitudetheir gratitude to significant people in their lives in only five words? What could they say? What would they say? Would they even do it?” I decided to create an online Google form where people could post their five words of gratitude to another person and invite people to share them. I did not blog this at the time and decided to only post it in LinkedIn, Facebook, Google+, and made it the subject of my monthly “marketing” newsletter (because I really hate having to do marketing anyway and this seemed more fun than marketing). All of this was just for fun and I was not counting on having many, if any responses. Well, I was wrong. I got a bunch of responses. Here are just a few:

  • To a sibling: “Thank you for graciously listening.”
  • To a child: “Your smile makes my day!”
  • To a colleague: “Deep thinker with a conscience.”
  • To a deceased parent: “Inspiration to overcome obstacles.”
  • To a patient: “Honored by attending your childbirth.”

Because so many of the responses are very powerful and I have been deeply touched by them, I decided to share this invitation a little more widely through my blog. I have been asked whether I will share the responses and, yes, I will. However, I am not exactly sure how and when I will do that. For now I will continue to compile them and in the near future I will be sharing many of them in future blogs.

In the meantime, if you would like to contribute, please click on this link: Five Words of Gratitude.

Be Greater. Do Good. Everyday. (Those are not my five words of gratitude but someone did suggest they could be.)

Tom

What if…”Better Practices” not “Best Practices?”

An emphasis on using “evidence based practices” is stifling experimentation. This was the statement I posed in a poll within my last blog, back in February 2015, just before I got sucked into a vortex of Federal grant writing from which I am only now extracting myself. The results are in and a full 77% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the statement is true.

Before we run out and create an “evidence based practice” of wild experimentation on the basis of this finding, however, it is important to keep two things in mind. Firstly, this was a highly unscientific poll that was not intended for grounding a new discipline but only for stimulating dialogue…which it did. Secondly, I am not really a “best practice” or “evidence-based” curmudgeon, but I am not an uncritical fan of them. On some days, I may even be more critic than fan.

In fact, we need “best practices” and “evidence-based practices.” I was particularly taken by the comments of my friend Andy Penziner who offered this defense of evidence-based practices in a comment on my blog at http://www.nonprofitgp.com:

First, evidence-based solutions/best practices would seem preferable to pet solutions or random practices. Second, context and generalizability should always be acknowledged and considered. Third, a creative, open mind should never be stifled in favor of blind deference to whatever the best practice d’jour might be; they can coexist. Finally, as for pleasing funders or conforming to their priorities…well, it’s kind of a fact of life, eh!

What IfI would like to add two additional points to these. One is that there are some situations in which “evidence based practices” are the best and only practices you absolutely want. For example, do want to see a doctor that is not using evidence based medicine in providing care for you? Probably not. Do you want to live in a high rise building that has not been built to the standards of evidence based architecture and building construction? No way! Do you want fly down the highway in heavy traffic inside an automobile that has not been built to evidence based standards and carefully tested? Absolutely not. Keep in mind that my previous blog was a bit of a rant about using “best practices” and “evidence-based” practices to address complex social problems. A complex social problem is one that eludes solutions proposed by “best practices” and “evidence-based” solutions because it shares the characteristics of a complex adaptive system. It is dynamic; has many interdependent agents or factors; one change in the system affects changes throughout the whole system; and it is robust in its ability to do all of these things. Within complex social problems, there may be a place to use some “best practice” or “evidence-based” interventions for very specific purposes. However, to believe that one or two or even three or four “evidence-based” interventions can solve the whole of the problem is just wrong thinking. It is also to commit the error Andy warns about: failing to acknowledge the role of context.

The other thing I would like to add to Andy’s list is that “best practices” and “evidence-based practices” also have useful historical value. They tell us what did and did not work well in the past, which may have value for our current situation. Considered in this light, “best practices” and “evidence-based practices” can suggest to us “better practices that may work” though they offer no guarantees of working in our situation. I bristle against “best practices” and “evidence-based practices” when they are presented as the “solution” regardless of the context, which, in the case of social problems, is usually complex.

I have become increasingly fond of the idea of “better practices that may work.” This allows me to feel comfortable standing in both the worlds of “evidence-based” practice and “what if” experimentation. On the one hand, it allows me to consider the evidence of proven and best practices. On the other, as Andy indicates, it helps me to keep a creative, open mind; always consider the context; and avoid uncritically adopting the evidence-based practice of the moment.

The key word in the phrase “better practices that may work” is “may.” “May” does not offer the guarantees of “will.” To say something may work is to say just as clearly that it may not work which is a loaded proposition for many folks.

It is loaded with the risk of failure. It is loaded with the humility required to admit that one does not have all the answers. It is loaded with the requirement to engage in the uncertainty, angst, and, some would say, joy and excitement, of “what if” experimentation.

Over the past few months I have been compiling some “what if” experiments with regard to community engagement on complex social problems and have been discussing them and exploring their implications with increasing regularity with my clients. If you work with communities to address such problems, here are a few of my questions to help you think of your own:

  • What if…people with lived experience of the social problem we are trying to address were really welcomed into our coalitions, leadership teams, and other planning groups? (As my friend Tommy Ross has said, “There is a big difference between an invitation and a welcome.”)
  • What if…that welcome included having the same decision making power as the rest of us?
  • What if…we valued and prioritized relationship building and social networking as community engagement strategies more than using social media and marketing?
  • What if…we focused more on creating community ownership of change than “buy in” to the change?
  • What if…we used principles to guide our work rather than checklists, protocols, and performance measures?
  • What if…we were to build trust before trying to change things?
  • What if…we shared the leadership and did not insist on being out front?
  • What if…we were to conduct evaluation that is focused on developing a better effort rather than measuring achievement of outcomes?
  • What if…we were to embrace the risk of “better practices that may work”?

Be greater. Do good. Every day.

Tom Klaus

Beyond the Comfort of What We Think We Know

Has an over-reliance on “best practices” and “evidence-based” practices struck a deathblow to our ability to think creatively and our courage to be experimental?

My mind is still mulling over my experience at the inaugural Collective Impact Summit last October in Toronto. No individual presenter had a greater impact on my thinking in that meeting than Brenda Zimmerman. Dr. Zimmerman, who died tragically on December 16 last year in an automobile accident, was a leading thinker in the application of complexity theory to both for profit and social profit (aka nonprofit) organizations and our understanding of change. She is widely known for her book, Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed, written with Frances Westley and Michael Quinn Patton.

Dr. Zimmerman’s presentation and workshop at the Summit challenged, stirred, and animated my thinking in a number of ways. One that has been most Powerprofound has been pushing me to rediscover the value and validity of experimentation. I think of experimentation as the courage to ask “What if we tried…(fill in the blank)?” rather than rotely following the recipes, formulas, and checklists of “best practices” and “evidence-based” approaches.

I know better than most the safety of recipes, formulas, and checklists. The ability to apply or replicate evidence-based solutions to problems is often the surest course to achieving the measurable outcomes demanded by many funders. However, the unintended consequences of fidelity to our recipes, formulas, and checklists can be horrific.

For example, under pressure to meet some funders’ timetables to apply the best evidence-based solution to a complex social problem in our community, we ignore, in our haste, those who have genuine expertise with the problem and whose wisdom we need: those who live the problem every day.

Ignoring these, whom Dr. Zimmerman called “context experts,” can lead us, in turn, to an over-reliance on evidence-based solutions which appear to have demonstrated success in addressing similar complex community problems. As a result, we identify an evidence-based solution that worked for another community, but which does not really work for our community, or even at all. We assume the solution will work because the problem over there looks very similar to the one we are trying to solve right here. We even try to “tweak” the solution with various approved adaptations to make it fit better. In the end, we discover we have simply forced the proverbial “square peg into a round hole.” In our shame, we write-up carefully worded reports for the funder to make the evidence-based solution sound more successful than we know it was and, in some cases, our reports merely add to the myth of that particular evidence-based solution.

However, we are not the only ones who know that the evidence-based solution we selected to do to the community did not really work. Those context experts know it, too. Their secret knowledge of the solution’s poor fit and its failure significantly weakens the likelihood of sustaining the solution in the community. After all, the community might not have wanted or needed our solution in the first place and may be glad to see it now, finally, go away. Sustainability stems from successful solutions owned by the community; and ownership grows out of trust, respect, and meaningful participation of the context experts – which we did not demonstrate from the outset.

Nonetheless, we climb further into the “best practice” and “evidence-based” trap. We are confident the next time we will find the right fit if we just follow the formula a little more carefully.

What if the problem is the formula? What if the process is flawed? What if our assumptions about expertise, best practices, and evidence-based solutions are all wrong? What if we have allowed our blind trust in best practices and evidence-based solutions for complex social problems kill off our human capacity for genuine creativity, thoughtful experimentation, and the ability to simply ask, “What if….?”

I am going to leave you with these questions but I plan to continue this conversation soon. In the meantime, take a moment to complete the poll at the bottom. I would like to know what you think.

Be greater. Do good. Every day.

T.W.K.

Developing Nonprofit Story Worth Following

The Nonprofit Quarterly daily online newsletter, Newswire, has been covering a story in the state of Maine that bears watching by every nonprofit leader. Governor Paul LePage’s tax and budget plan coming before the state’s Legislature levies taxes on nonprofits and eliminates the charitable gift tax credit, even as it cuts taxes for higher income individuals. However, Governor LePage is not alone. Several other governors and states are pressing for variations on this plan. Maine, however, might be a “bell weather” for things to come, hence it deserves the attention of nonprofits throughout the United States.

Some readers of this blog may know that I also write for the Newswire and this Maine story is one that I and few other NPQ writers have been following closely. My latest article on Governor LePage’s promises that a “flood of money” will come into nonprofits under his plan appeared in the Newswire today, February 23rd. In the first paragraph of my article you will find links to four other articles that have recently appeared in the Newswire highlighting different aspects of this story, including an earlier one that I wrote about the impact on Maine’s nonprofit summer camps, which are a major economic driver for the state.

The NQP Newswire stories are generally quick reads, less than 500 words. However, if you cannot get to them today, please book mark them and come back to them at your earliest convenience.

Be greater. Do good. Every day.

T.W.K.

Shared Experience: The Crucible of Community

This week I had a chance to meet up with a special group of my lifelong friends. They are not my best friends and we have known each other for barely five years. However, we have a bond that knits us together in a way that ensures our friendship will endure through the rest of our lives. What is that bond? Suffering. At least, that is what one of my friends says it is. In fact, we bonded through the shared experience of a grueling paper chase. For over five years we have lived together in the crucible of higher education in pursuit of the Doctor of Philosophy in Organizational

(L to R) Kay Nussbaum, Brian Albright, Denise Bell, Brian Leander, Daniel Gluck, Tom Klaus & Anita Gregory celebrating Daniel's successful dissertation defense at Minella's Diner in Wayne, PA in January 20, 2015.
(L to R) Seven of the 15 lifelong friends, Kay Nussbaum, Brian Albright, Denise Bell, Brian Leander, Daniel Gluck, Tom Klaus & Anita Gregory, celebrating Daniel’s successful dissertation defense at Minella’s Diner in Wayne, PA in January 20, 2015.

Leadership. Together we have been afraid, angry, hurt, exhausted, frustrated, on the edge of total collapse, and ready to walk, no, run away. Also, together, we have wept, laughed, comforted, celebrated, supported (even with calls and texts in the middle of the night), forgiven, and lovingly kept one another close so that running away was not possible. In this crucible we forged a friendship, a community, to which we will belong and cherish for the rest of our lives.

Much of my career’s work has been in community social change efforts. I have been in innumerable meetings in which someone would raise the question in that hushed, quasi-philosophical tone, “So, what do we mean by…community?” What usually ensues is a debate about geographic boundaries, homogeneity, ethnicity, etc., etc. Too rarely have I heard “shared experience” raised as a means of defining community. Considered individually, there is little that our group of 15 lifelong friends has in common. We are racially diverse, professionally diverse, and geographically diverse (Calgary to Addis Ababa to Malawi and all points in between). We are from different generations and different faiths. And yet, we have among us a single shared experience that is unique to us as a group. It is this crucible experience that has forged us into a community.

In fact, is it not shared experience that defines a community more than any other characteristic? For this reason, when we attempt community social change it is important that we understand that shared community experience. There is no better place to begin to increase our understanding than with the people who have lived the experience personally. These are also known as “context experts” because it is their first-person knowledge and understanding of that experience that helps us understand the community context. Without the context experts and an understanding of that shared experience in the community, our efforts will always be less effective and more short-lived.

In our next community change initiative…whether it is focused on poverty, homelessness, teen pregnancy, substance abuse, violence prevention, or something else…let’s call in the context experts first to help us understand what the community is really all about.

Be greater. Do good. Everyday.

T.W.K.