Today my heart is full of appreciation for an incredible experience.
My assignment over the past few months has been to design, develop, and deliver two 2-day long training events in Denver, CO and Washington, DC for teen pregnancy prevention grantees on the topic of community mobilization. It was a capacity building training event that focused on teaching them to use a number of tools and processes to more effectively lead mobilization efforts in their communities.
The OAH staff was terrific to work with. Jacque McCain and Tish Hall were the “point people” on this project for OAH and I could not have asked for two better folks to work with. They thoughtfully considered the training design and materials I submitted, provided useful feedback, and were willing to let me do a few unconventional things to make the training more meaningful and memorable for the grantees. In DC, ten of the OAH staff were also able to attend and it was great to have them there too.
Meeting with David & other members of the Choctaw Nation.
Work group from Alice, TX & El Paso, TX
Charlotte & Tea, both on the job for less than a week, were honored with Red Noses.
Music with Maryjo Oster!
Workgroup members from Tennessee and Florida
CM Game “Chairs & Vice Chairs” in Denver
Workgroup members from New York and California
Maryjo Oster and Kristine Andrews of Child Trends were the official liaisons between me and OAH. They were also training colleagues who were willing to do whatever was needed to make sure both events ran smoothly – from managing handouts, to helping people use the Catchbox microphones, to assisting grantees with their learning activities, to providing orientation instructions for “The Community Mobilization Game.” Even more, despite the long hours and hard work, they kept their wits and senses of humor about them. I especially appreciate that they were willing to try some out-of-the-box participant engagement strategies with me. For example, Maryjo, who is also an outstanding professional musician, brought her guitar to both events and led the groups in just the right songs at the right times.
Margaret Black and Stephanie Hines of Capital Meeting Planning were incredible for their ability to manage the travel and lodging arrangements for nearly 250 people, deal effectively with hotel and audio-visual staff, and also manage all of the materials I needed for the training events. They did all of this…and more…with grace and humor!
Finally, the 235 grantees (120 in Denver and 115 in DC) attending the events were absolutely amazing! They participated with wild enthusiasm – whether they were listening to a mini-lecture, engaged in one of the many group activities, doing some reflective writing, giving in to the Cha Cha Break, speaking up into the Catchbox mics to share their ideas, trying on Red Noses, throwing themselves with gusto into “The Community Mobilization Game,” or smiling and laughing with one another throughout the event. It was incredible – and was made incredible – by the grantees! Grantees traveled from all over the United States and the Marshall Islands to attend the training events. I feel honored and humbled by the efforts each made to be with us.
Finally, as you will see in these pictures, Red Noses were an important part of these events. There are two reasons. First, Thursday, May 26th is Red Nose Day and I made sure I gave out about a dozen Red Noses as prizes, recognitions, and just for fun, all to call attention to the day. You see, Red Nose Day is about raising money to help children and youth who are in poverty. Last year about $33 million was raised in the United States for this cause. This brings me to the second reason: May is National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month in the United States, which was founded by my late colleague and close friend, Barbara Huberman. The correlation between poverty and teen pregnancy has been well-established. Community mobilization, Red Noses, & National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month – to me, they all just seem to make sense together.
May 2015 was an exciting month for me. First, I discovered Red Nose Day, a poverty alleviation effort begun in the United Kingdom that had made its way to the United States. Second, I wrote a blog asking people to submit their Five Words of Gratitude to someone they would like to honor. Then, I got sick and spent a couple of months trying to figure out why; until I landed in the hospital in Philadelphia and met my new best friend, Jude (my pacemaker).
In May 2016…
Jude is working just fine and I feel absolutely terrific. In fact, my golf scores have never been so low. Why, last week I shot a 77…on only three holes! (Just kidding, of course, it was on 18 holes – he wrote without a shred of humility.)
Red Nose Day (May 26th) is thriving. In 2015 it raised $23 million to improve the lives of children around the United States and the world. Red Nose Day supports meals for children; provides reading, educational, and after school resources; provides bed nets and drugs to fight malaria and HIV; supports access to medical care for low income and homeless children and their families; and pays for vaccines and clean water and sanitation. Red Nose Day is becoming a terrific cause-related marketing campaign in the U.S. This year Walgreen’s continues to be a major sponsor and not only can you buy Red Noses there, you can also buy accessories to complement it. The handsome guy in these photos is modeling not only the nose but a Red Nose coffee mug and lapel pin. The lapel pin is a particularly safe choice if you do not want to be caught in someone’s Smart-aleck phone photo that will be plastered all over social media.
Hey, if you are brave enough to wear the Red Nose, though, you will also want to check out the Red Nose Training Manual. The Red Nose Training Manual was written by my friend Howard Macy, a world class philosopher, theologian, and lover of the Red Nose. After seeing my own Red Nose photo last year, Howard sent me a copy of the Red Nose Training Manual. In his Red-Nose Manifesto Howard argues:
Your red nose is not a disguise, but an accessory. People will know who you are, but they will also recognize that, even more profoundly, you know who you are, too.
The little book is a quick, fun read with lots of great suggestions for making the most of the Nose. Be sure to read and let Howard’s Red Nose Manifesto sink in.
I am starting to carry my Red Nose with me when I travel for work. In fact, I am going to try to document its journey with selfies…now that I have figured out how to take one.
The Five Words of Gratitude continues to grow. My original plan had been to write a special 2015 Thanksgiving blog using the many contributions I had received. However, because I was still recovering from the close call with my health, it seemed like a good time to write my own five words. Since posting the original Five Words of Gratitude blog, people have continued to make contributions. I assume this happens as people “stumble” across the blog as they surf the web. Finally, a year later, I am able to feature some of the words that have been shared. I will not give the names of the people who shared them nor will I identify by the name the people for whom the gratitude is intended. Nonetheless, I think you will get the sense of deep appreciation that is being expressed.
Many offered their Five Words of Gratitude and let them say it all:
To my boss: She celebrates my unique gifts.
To those who share their wisdom with me: Your sharing matters…I’m growing.
To my spouse: I appreciate your steadfast loyalty.
To my colleague: Second mouse gets the cheese.
To my parents: Thanks for making me believe.
To my mentor: Your unrelenting curiosity and hope.
To my friend: Your wisdom, friendship appreciated always.
To my sibling: Thank you for graciously listening.
To my spouse: (Name), my love, thank you!
To my friend: Helping me navigate through challenges.
To my parents: Thanks for kindling my fire.
To my child: Grateful to infinity for you!
To my staff: You care! Mahalo nui loa (Thank you very much)
Others found five words were not enough so they provided some additional commentary:
To my spouse: Morning coffee, evening wine, joy. – And everything in between!
To my parents: Support. Encouragement. Love. Humor. – I do activities like this with the children and families I work with, but often forget to apply it to my everyday life.
To my child: Your smile makes my day! – She is amazing and confident!
To my spouse: Thank you for being there. – She has always supported me, no matter how crazy my ideas are.
To my friend: Go to your zen place. – ..Love…Laugh…Learn…Celebrate
Some did not need the full five words, yet their words were full of meaning:
To my spouse: You make me whole.
To my mother: Inspiration to overcome obstacles – I remember her words whenever there was a problem: “We will just have to make do.”
One of my favorites was from a midwife, written to the mothers whose births she had attended: Honored by attending your childbirth, to which she then added: World peace begins with birth.
I hope you have enjoyed this slight deviation from my otherwise really serious blogs. My intention? To help you remember the joy in your life; to see kindness and appreciation in our world (in spite of the current U.S. Presidential campaign); and to put a Red Nose on your face.
By the way, I have decided to keep the Five Words of Gratitude site active for purely selfish reasons – I need the inspiration and the reminders to live my own life with gratitude. You are welcome to record your own Five Words of Gratitude and to cut and paste the link – http://goo.gl/forms/XT9OfgQI6K – to others as well. And, yes, I will be sure to share them with you in a future blog.
Whether it is Collective Impact, or another collaboration framework, our collaborative posture is a critical underlying factor in success.
Recently the Collective Impact Forum featured a terrific piece by Sheri Brady and Jennifer Splansky Juster on the Collective Impact Principles of Practice. These eight principles to guide efforts to put Collective Impact into practice are long overdue.
There is still something missing. Each of the principles help collaborative groups operationalize the five conditions of Collective Impact (which you can probably recite by memory now: common agenda, shared measurement, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication, and backbone support). Yet each of the principles assumes members of Collective Impact groups possess the collaborative posture to enact the eight principles. I am wary of this assumption. I fear most people will read the CI Eight Principles of Practice and respond much in the same way they did to the CI Five Conditions: “Yep, makes a lot of sense. Got it! In fact, we’re doing those things already.” My experience in creating new collaborative efforts, and helping to repair existing efforts gone awry, has taught me that the best principles and conditions in the world will not make any difference if members have poor collaborative posture.
Much of what has been written about Collective Impact has focused on what people do to achieve it. This is not surprising because many people crave the comfort and certainty of formulas, recipes, and best practices – even though these are not very helpful in addressing complex issues. Underlying and supporting all of the doing is being the kind of people who can do what is necessary. I could use several of the eight principles that Brady and Splansky Juster identified to illustrate what I mean but I will focus on this one to make my point: “Include community members in the collaborative.” Specifically, the authors define community members as “those whose lives are most directly and deeply affected by the problem addressed by the initiative.” I fully agree with this principle but, realistically, it is difficult to do and often resisted. The most common protests to doing this are typically related to logistics: “We meet during the weekdays, can they come at the same time?,” “How would they get here?,” “Could they come to where we meet?,” and “Do they really have the experience to know how to interact with our group?” The answers are really pretty straightforward to these barriers: “Change you meeting time, provide transportation and/or make the location more convenient to community members, educate members about the content, and orient them to, even train them in, the process of your meetings.” I do not believe the logistics are really to blame. I believe the problem lies within the will of both individual members and the group. Remember the old saying, “Where there is a will, there is a way?”
Possessing a collaborative posture is about being the kind of people who find the will to do what it takes to engage people in the community and to actually do the other principles.
What does it take to achieve a collaborative posture? Let me suggest at least three things:
Checked Egos. Ego is fueled by the perceived right to authority. There are many things that cause us to feel like we have a right to make decisions on behalf of others. Some of these things include, but are not limited to, education, wealth, status, race, formal position, the depth of one’s personal experience, and even the honor of membership in a social change collaborative group that is going to “help” others. When we humans come together in a group to make decisions that affect the lives of others, it is so easy to feel like we have been given authority over others, even if only a little.
When we “check” our egos, we willingly lay down the right to have the final word in decisions that affect the lives of others.
When we must make those decisions, we do so as inclusively as possible and, even then, with a sense of awe, respect, and care. I know. This does not sound practicable in a world that moves as fast as ours. Yet we mostly accomplish this capacity by living into an attitude of humility.
Crossed Boundaries. To cross boundaries in collaborative work is to invite others to work with us, and especially those who are not like us and may not even trust us. Why in the world would we ever do that? Simple; because we cannot make change happen by ourselves. It is completely human, when we form groups, to gravitate toward those most like us and whom we find most agreeable. This ensures our comfort in the group and comfort is important. You know what I am talking about; you have seen it yourself. A coalition or collaboration forms by gathering “the usual suspects,” those individuals and groups already known to one another because they have partnered on the same or similar issues in the past. They know before they ever meet they are all “on the same page.” This is not horrible, but it is very inadequate because it often leads to doing “business as usual.” What if a collaborative group were to form among individuals and groups who shared a similar goal but had very different ideas for how to accomplish it? For one thing, everyone would feel a lot less comfortable.
I used to teach groups that the first step to crossing boundaries was to take a good look at their group and see who was not in it and yet should be. I have given up on that strategy. There is a stronger tendency toward group self-preservation than I ever estimated. Once it has achieved a particular comfort, it fights to maintain the status quo. As a result, groups often conclude most everyone who should be in the group is already in the group.
What I have found to be more effective in teaching groups about boundary crossing is to ask this question: “What individuals or groups do you feel most uncomfortable including in your collaborative group, even though they may agree with your ultimate goal?” Once they have listed those individuals or groups, I encourage them to reach out to them and begin the process of inviting them to participate.
Crossing boundaries has to take us out of our comfort zone or else we have not crossed anything.
Shared Power. Power sharing is rooted in a deeply held belief in the expertise of others. A few years ago I was in a meeting with the leadership team of a collaborative group that was responsible for implementing social service interventions in an urban community. I had just finished a day-long meeting with the full collaborative group and, during this debrief, I had merely observed to the leadership team that I did not meet any people in the group who actually lived in the community they were serving. The response I received was stunning in its arrogance as a team member pounded the table and said, “Why would we have them here? We are the experts!” Oh boy.
When we convene our Collective Impact and collaborative groups, we tend to seek out experts on the issue we are trying to address. This makes sense because we want the very best to help us solve the difficult, complex challenges we are facing. Experts are people with extensive skills and/or knowledge of a specific field, area, or issue. Does expertise include status, wealth, connections, and even celebrity? We must believe it does because we often prioritize recruitment of members with these qualifications. While it is important to include them in our collaborative groups, I do not believe any single area of expertise (including these) qualifies anyone to hold power over the lives of others.
Do we also believe in the expertise of the people who are living day-to-day with the issue our group is working to address? Do we believe drug addicts understand the addictive process better than we do and have solutions to offer? Do we believe the observations of people living in poverty concerning how policies and practices in our community are actually barriers to their getting out of poverty? Do we believe gang members and victims have insights on how to stop the violence? Do we believe poor people can offer solutions to their own situation? Do we believe people struggling with obesity know something about eating healthier? Do we believe parents of children who have been removed from the home and placed into the foster care system can also help us think of better ways to do child welfare in our communities? Or do we merely see all of these as people who need the help only we, the experts, can give them?
If we do not believe that every person has expertise, then we will cling to power, and our community and our collaborative initiative will struggle. When we release the power and share it with others, we will not only learn from one another but we will grow participation and ownership of the solutions.
A buzzing sound can mean many things.When I was a kid growing up on an Iowa farm, a buzzing sound usually meant bees were near by…typically a scary thing since I was pretty sure they had me in their tiny stinger sights. Ah, but there are buzzing sounds that are not at all scary and indicate good things are happening. I heard one just like that last week in Buffalo, New York.
It intrigues me that I can almost immediately distinguish the type of buzzing that is happening, even before I know the source or the cause. Last week in Buffalo there was definitely a strong, positive buzzing sound. It was the buzz of genuine participation.
For the past few months I have been working with a group of volunteers in the community who have come together to see what can be done about teen pregnancy in Buffalo. Last year the community was funded through the Office of Adolescent Health (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) to replicate prevention programs and facilitate referrals to youth friendly health centers in an effort to reduce the teen pregnancy rate by 30% over the next five years. That is a tall order. The effort, known as the Buffalo Collaborative Community Initiative to Reduce Teen Pregnancy (BCC), is led by Cicatelli Associates Inc. (CAI Global). The BCC includes partnerships with key organizations and groups throughout the community, including the Erie County Department of Health, numerous community based organizations (CBOs), the faith community, and “just plain folks.”
The group, known as the Community Action Team or CAT, was originally convened about six months ago and I had my first meeting with it in December 2015. I was asked to help the group get a better understanding of its community mobilization work and how it relates to the overall project. In that meeting the group was still new and forming and there was not much to buzz about…except for just a little bit of confusion about its role. This is pretty typical for new groups in the early stages of development.
Last week I returned to Buffalo to work with the group again. This time there was a different kind of buzzing. Early in the meeting I led the group through a series of exercises that were designed to get them moving about, meeting other CAT members, and having substantive conversations with one another. There was a buzz at that time because the members really put themselves into the exercises and, yes, they were participating.
But the real buzz of participation was the one I heard after the exercises were completed, and the CAT divided into its five different “action groups” and went to work. Now, overall, the CAT has responsibility to lead effort to mobilize the community in support of the teen pregnancy prevention work. I decided to sit in with a group that was working on a survey for new and recent parenting teens. As part of their contribution to community mobilization, members felt it would be motivational for the community to know more about what it was like to be a parenting teen today compared with “back then” (10 or more years ago). Mostly I listened in to the conversation and only occasionally asked questions or offered ideas.
There was this moment when my ears and mind, though, were pulled away from my action group by a buzzing sound. The room was alive with buzzing, and not a bee was in sight. All five groups were meeting in the same large groom and the sound that had arisen in the space was the strong, positive buzzing of engaged people working together in genuine participation. Wow! What a sound! What a moment!
How is that groups come to make this kind of sound together?
I believe it happens when we, the “experts” who are often asked to lead such groups, allow it to happen. To allow it, though, we have to let people actually participate meaningfully. Meaningful participation is, in part, what I mean by genuine participation.
The temptation we often face in leading community change is to be in charge, set the agenda, make the decisions, and “demonstrate” collaboration by recruiting members to a group like the CAT, yet without really allowing them to have a meaningful role. That is, we create the appearance of community participation without actually having community participation.
Look, I know just how tempting it is to do that. We often work with tight deadlines, and too few staff, so we feel pressure to shortcut the process by convening groups and, mostly, having them “rubber stamp” our ideas and plans so we can “check the box” of community involvement for the annual report to the funder. I have observed a lot of that and research I have recently published with a colleague supports that observation. (See the contact box below to request more information on this research.) Also, frankly, I have experience doing the same darn thing…much to my embarrassment and shame.
We can do better though, right? Of course!We will know we are doing better by the kind of buzzing we hear. Listen carefully. Token participation creates a buzzing from discontent, disappointment, frustration, and irritation as people grow to feel ignored, over-ruled and used. Genuine participation generates the buzz of excitement, enthusiasm, hope, and empowerment that comes from having a meaningful role in community change. I know which kind I want to hear.
Recently I have been ruminating on the difference between community engagement and community mobilization. “Ruminate” is a great word for a Leap Day because the extra day gives us more time to really think on something, right? In the United States, where I do much of my work, we seem to prefer the term mobilization more than engagement, though we sometimes refer to mobilization as engagement and vice versa.
The more I have studied and practiced both, the more I find the mixing of the two terms to be confusing, problematic, and incorrect. I can hear at least a couple of my colleagues say, “Whoa, Tom, aren’t you splitting hairs? It’s all the same, come on.” I will grant this much: there are elements of each in the other. However, the priority and emphasis we give to each is important because they are not fundamentally the same.
Whether we choose to prioritize and emphasize engagement or mobilization, it will make a difference in how we work with the community.
In my efforts to parse the difference between the two, I have identified some important distinctions. These need to inform our choice of engagement or mobilization and how we do them.
Personal v. Public Approaches: Engagement is a relational approach that taps the power of personal social networks to systematically build an ever expanding circle of participation and support. Mobilization is a more public approach as it tends to use group and mass promotion and marketing strategies via traditional and social media.
Less v. More Resources: Because engagement is relational, it requires fewer resources. Often it just needs people who have friends or acquaintances and a social network they are willing to engage. Okay, maybe it will sometimes cost the price of a soda, a cup of coffee, or another beverage to lubricate the conversation. However, mobilization can be more resource intensive because many traditional outreach strategies are expensive. Even social media is increasingly finding new ways to charge for expanding one’s reach.
Empowerment v. Compliance: A key aspect of engagement is empowerment: it draws communities into meaningful participation which also empowers them to be the decision makers for their own future. This is because, in the best engagement scenarios, the agenda for change is generated by the community, with the community, and for the community. In this sense, community change through engagement is intrinsic, arising from within it. Mobilization tends to enforce an extrinsic, pre-determined agenda on a community. Communities may go along (comply) with the agenda of the funder or a powerful local group or organization. Often they do so hoping they will eventually get what is really needed in the end. Sometimes it is merely to get along with the powers-that-be in the community to make life a little bit better.
Ownership v. Buy In: Engagement and empowerment fosters ownership of the community issue and its solution as people become invested through relationships and personal stories. These make it “personal.” Mobilization build interest, and even some commitment, as people acknowledge the importance of the issue. Yet, because of the impersonal nature of mobilization, people may be less likely to fully participate in the change or feel a sense of personal empowerment and ownership.
Long Term v. Short Term: Community engagement may not be as flashy as the strategies used in mobilization, but engaged communities which change through participation, personal empowerment and ownership tend to maintain the change longer. They are also more resistant to “snapping back” to the way things were before. Mobilization strategies can get faster change, which may be why they are used instead of or with engagement strategies, but it may not be change that is deep enough to last. If you want something to “stick,” engagement offers greater promise.
This brings me to this final distinction between community engagement and community mobilization.
Slow Food v. Fast Food: Community engagement is like eating and sharing food cooked with friends, made with fresh ingredients, and enjoyed together. It often results in a meal that is satisfying and an experience that lasts in the collective memory of the group. Community mobilization is like fast food. You can get it by yourself through the drive-up window, you can get a lot of it, it feeds your hunger, and yet it is not particularly memorable nor long-lasting. In fact, you may be back at the fast food window in just a couple of hours to get another dose.
My bias toward community engagement is pretty clear in this blog, and many others I have written. Community mobilization does have its place. Sometimes mobilization has to be the choice because that is what the funder, the timeline or the circumstances support. Also, there are some mobilization strategies that do support quality community engagement.
Nonetheless, whenever you have the choice, choose engagement. The dividends are higher. Even when you must choose mobilization, look for ways to infuse it with engagement.
What do you do when you realize the monumental project you have undertaken will have to be finished without you?
This was the question Antoni Gaudi faced when the architect realized his great work, the Sagrada Familia, would not be finished in his lifetime. Gaudi’s solution is one that is still available to us today.
This past October I traveled to Barcelona, Spain to attend the International Leadership Association global conference where I was privileged to present a paper. I also participated in a fascinating pre-conference workshop that introduced me to the life and legacy of Antoni Gaudi. It also included a tour of the Sagrada Famalia, personally guided by our workshop leader, an architectural historian who had studied the life and work of Gaudi. By no means does one become an expert in Gaudi and his work in a day-long event. I did gain from this experience, though, a deeper understanding of collective leadership and its importance for collective impact.
The Sagrada Familia was conceived in 1866 as a holy offering to God by the Spiritual Association of the Devotees of Saint Joseph. Antoni Gaudi, himself a devout Roman Catholic, was named the second chief architect of the Sagrada Familia in 1883, within a year after the building’s first stone was laid. The first chief architect resigned in a dispute with the Association. Gaudi took over the project when he was 31 years old and guided it until his death at age 74.
The Sagrada Familia became, for Gaudi, the greatest and most meaningful work of his life. Gaudi came from a poor family and he struggled throughout his life to make a living. From 1883 to 1914 he worked other architectural jobs to support himself and even to purchase materials and labor to build the Sagrada Familia. It is reported that he gave much of his earnings to the project and was even known to beg passersby on the street for contributions. In 1914, sensing the project required his full attention if it were to be completed, Gaudi devoted his full time and effort to it.
Still, this was not enough. Gaudi believed he would not live long enough to see the building completed, with good reason. In 1914 Gaudi was 68 years old and he had suffered from poor health all of his life. Chronically ill since childhood, during his conscripted service in the Spanish army as a young man he was often on medical leave. However, Gaudi did not die of any sickness. Only two weeks before his 75th birthday in 1926 he was accidently struck by a tram in the streets of Barcelona and died of his injuries in a pauper’s hospital only three days later.
Whether it was prophetic, insightful, or just plain luck, Gaudi’s realization and subsequent strategic choice in 1914 made it possible for his great work to be completed by others. Instead of continuing to focus on the actual construction of the building, Gaudi turned his attention to building the models and plans for others to follow. By the time of his death, Gaudi had finished enough that others could complete the project. Since 1926 there have been six other architects who have led the work and each has continued to build the Sagrada Familia according to Gaudi’s original concept and models. The Sagrada Familia is scheduled to be completed in 2026 in recognition of the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death.
There are different ways to express collective or shared leadership. A common one is the simultaneous leadership of multiple people or groups. This is often how teams and collaborations work together. An Individual or group steps up to provide leadership in an area of expertise while others do the same in their areas. Another expression of collective leadership is what Gaudi did with the Sagrada Familia. Despite his deep love, intense commitment, and nearly life-long ownership of the project, he opened and prepared the way for others to continue his work. Notably, while he created the concepts, models, and plans, he did not prescribe every decision and detail for his successors. In this way, they were free to interpret his vision and similarly own the project. Yet, the collective impact represented by the completion and overwhelming presence of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is undeniable.
Collective impact initiatives that result in durable social change need to be managed through collective leadership. While the collective leadership approach may be different for each collective impact initiative, one thing is true about each one: collective leadership begins with the individual.
This is my truth about collective leadership:it is less about techniques and tactics to help us become better at collective leadership; and mostly about individual attitude and will. Even if we had none of those tools and strategies, it would still be possible to engage in effective collective leadership. Why? Because we already have the skills. We learned them as children when we wanted to play well with others. We just need to rediscover and release that inner good playmate again.
Playing well with others is a choice. Confession: it is also part of my truth that I do not always choose to be a good playmate. Even if it is an unconscious choice, it is still a choice. When my “good child” comes out to play with others in collective leadership, it is typically because I have willfully made three personal choices:
Check ego. I do not mean “check” in the sense of making sure I have an ego. Of that I have no doubt. I mean “check” in the sense of making sure it is under control. Ego is about my right to authority. To check my ego is to intentionally lay down my right to the have the final word. This is a wholly internal process that is about changing my own attitude. After all, social change is not all about me, or you, for that fact. Social change is about creating a greater good for our world that we may not be around long enough to enjoy. If we will not check our ego, we are not yet ready for collective leadership. When we do, we are ready to move on to the next two things, which are now easier to do once we have checked egos.
Cross boundaries. Simply put, this means I invite others to work with me – especially those who are not very much like me. I do this because I know I cannot solve social problems by myself. I do this, too, because I know diversity of perspectives, experience, and ideas will result in an even better effort. Crossing boundaries has to take us out of our comfort zones or else we have not crossed anything. It is the only way for us to come in contact with and gather the kind of robust collective impact group members we will need to be innovative and energized. Sometimes, it even means we cross into the deep space of the conflict zone, to bring in people who are our critics and naysayers, especially when we know they share our end goal.
Share power. This is where it “gets real” for my checked ego. Once the group or team has been assembled, I need to work collaboratively with them to create the kind of space where each of us has an important and meaningful role in shared decision making and collective leadership. Power sharing in collective leadership creates ownership. Remember, Gaudi could have exerted immense power, even from his grave (which is in the building’s crypt), by including instructions on every intricate detail of the Sagrada Familia. If he had, he probably would not have actually finished even the planning before his death. Even more, his successors might have grown to resent feeling compelled to finish his great work rather than develop a deep sense of ownership of their joint project.
This week (January 18, 2016) we remember and honor the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the United States. The question that opened this post is one that he seems to have been wrestling with as well just prior to his last speech in Memphis, Tennessee.
Through the collective leadership of Dr. King and those whom he gathered around him in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he found a way to ensure his great work would continue, even to this day. Today none can deny the collective impact of the civil rights movement in the United States.
I have been and remain convinced the fuel of collective impact includes collective leadership. I believe these three personal choices – check ego, cross boundaries, and share power – can and will strengthen our collective leadership efforts for collective impact.
I was born much later in our parent’s lives than my sisters. It was never made clear to me whether I was an accident, an afterthought, or simply a last gasp attempt to get a male to carry on the family name. Regardless of the plan, or lack thereof, I was born into the same generation as my nieces and nephews, and we grew up together, nearly as siblings. I was the oldest by only three years. It was always a bit odd for me to call my parents “Mom” and “Dad,” when they called them “Grandma” and “Grandpa.”
For the first 25 years of my life, Christmas Eve was celebrated by all at my parents’ house. Though there were gifts for everyone under the tree, my sisters’ families would also celebrate Christmas morning in their own homes where my nieces and nephews would finally receive the lion’s share of their annual yuletide loot. Mine, however, was received in total on Christmas Eve.
Since this was the arrangement during my childhood, I knew nothing else and never questioned it. My family was far from well off but, because we lived on a farm where humans were infinitely outnumbered by cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, sweet corn, potatoes, and other fruit and vegetables, we never went hungry. I remember each Christmas receiving one “big” gift, which usually meant it was the most expensive. The most notable of these was a miniature slot car racing set that stoked my boyish love of Midwestern dirt track stock car racing.
My Christmas Eve was always made special, however, by a mystery. After our holiday dinner of chili soup, oyster stew, and assorted delicacies, including pickled herring, mincemeat pie, and a canvas of sweets, including German Christmas cookies handmade by my mother, we would eagerly await the time to open presents. The mystery usually happened in the brief calm between dinner and the wild chaos of opening presents. It began as a faint jingling and would grow until we knew it was the unmistakable sound of Santa’s sleigh bells. All of us children would fly off to the only window we could reach and peer into the night. Never once did we catch a glimpse of him, but we knew he was there. We had the proof still ringing in our ears. When we finally peeled ourselves off the window and turned back to the Christmas tree, it always seemed a little bit fuller and brighter, and the gifts slightly more plentiful.
When I was on the verge of becoming a teenager, the mystery was revealed to me. The sleigh bells were real but they were not attached to a sleigh. They were dangled out another window (near the one we would race to) tied up by bailing rope, and hidden to all visitors outside the house by a small bush and the winter darkness. At the appointed time each Christmas Eve, my father would slip away to the room and start yanking on the bailing rope to play the orchestra of bells. It was, I believe, the only musical ability he possessed.
On this particular pre-adolescent Christmas Eve, I was shown the sleigh bells and invited to ring them for the others. Even more, I was invited to take over the annual tradition. Things and families change as they tend to do and the tradition was lost. But I still have the bells. Every time they jingle I am transported back to another more innocent time.
My last Christmas Eve adventure with the bells came on my son’s third birthday. By this time the sleigh bells, which really are from my great-grandfather’s sleigh, had been reconditioned and placed on a new leather strap and were hung on a wall in our home for display only. However, on this Christmas Eve, the only in which I (a guy named Klaus) would ever play Santa Claus, I conspired one last time with the bells.
I left the house to run an errand and changed into the Santa outfit in a nearby parking lot. I returned home as Santa, where I asked for my son. He came down the steps and stood frozen upon seeing me. His eyes were about to pop out of his head when I asked…”You must be Jakob. I just saw your dad and he helped me with a problem. I forgot my sleigh bells at the North Pole and he said I could borrow yours, but I had to ask you first. Is it okay?” Still frozen in silence and staring wide at me, it took several seconds for Jake to slowly nod his head. I thanked him for the bells, slung them over my shoulder, and left. When I returned home as dad after running my errands, Jake was no longer at a loss for words. He told me all about the visit from Santa, how Santa had asked for the bells, and how he and Santa had just talked…and talked…and talked.
I still have the bells and, in fact, they hang in my office today where, occasionally, as I walk by them I brush against them and, once again, the symphony of bells takes me back to those Christmas Eves in our Iowa farmhouse.
May your holidays be filled with wonderful experiences that become the most enduring stories of your life.