The Heart of Collaborative Leadership

About the Author

Rick Morse

Rick Morse is an associate professor of public administration and government at the UNC School of Government.

Water_HeartThe need for collaborative leaders in communities and regions has never been greater. Most, if not all, of the community development issues we grapple with are highly complex and “boundary crossing,” meaning they cut across organizational, jurisdictional, and sectoral boundaries.

Collaborative leaders are catalysts who bring stakeholders together to address shared issues. They are conveners and facilitators that lead more from the middle than from the front. Much has been written in recent years about the skill set of these post-hierarchical leaders. They are systems thinkers. They are effective facilitators and negotiators. They help resolve conflict.

But in my observation it isn’t the skill set that sets collaborative leaders apart. Rather, personal attributes, one’s “heart” if you will, is the real difference-maker when it comes to leading across boundaries as a catalyst, as a collaborative leader.

Of course I am not the first person to note the importance of the “heart” of collaborative leaders. In Russ Linden’s Working Across Boundaries published in 2002 (Jossey-Bass), he includes these questions for one to think about their collaborative leadership:

  • Do you come across as someone who prefers to be the source of all new ideas?
  • Do others see you as someone who typically wants to find the answer to problems and challenges on your own?
  • How do you react when others’ perspective on an issue is very different from yours? Is that an irritation to be avoided? An inconvenience to be overcome? An asset to be used?
  • When you’re working on an issue with others, how likely are you to ask if there’s anyone else with a stake in the issue?
  • When you’re trying to influence others, how much do you tend to push your own ideas, and to what extent do you use pull to invite others into the discussion?

Jeff Luke devoted his concluding chapter of Catalytic Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 1998) to person attributes. It is titled “Leading from Personal Passion and Strength of Character.” And more recently surveys of federal and local government leaders found that “the primary skill set for successful collaborators is defined by personal attributes” more so than more tangible or substantive skills (emphasis added; see O’Leary and Gerard’s report in the 2013 ICMA Municipal Yearbook). Here I’d like to draw attention to three of these attributes at the “heart” of collaborative leadership.

The first is what we might call a passion for creating public value. Public value has to do with the value to society created by a particular enterprise, be it an organization or a partnership of some kind. It is the public and not-for-profit sector equivalent of what private sector organizations call shareholder value. Whereas private sector organizations think of shareholder value in terms of profit, public service organizations think in terms of the public interest or common good. It is that common good, whether it be addressing a wicked public problem or simply improving the way a public service is provided, that drives collaborative leaders. Their drive for results is stronger than the pull of organizational inertia. It is that passion or drive that motivates them to look out beyond silos and think systemically and ultimately be open to collaboration.

Collaborative leaders are also humble. Their caring about the results is bigger than any selfish desire for credit. This is key to collaborative success as egos and desire to protect one’s turf often become major obstacles. Russ Linden describes collaborative leaders with “strong but measured egos” as not having to “grab the headlines for every success. Quite the opposite, they seem to take great satisfaction when they can share credit for accomplishments with many others. Their ambitions are director more toward . . . success than personal glory” (Working Across Boundaries, Jossey-Bass 2002). It is notable that the combination of a deep, driving passion for outcomes or “fierce resolve,” combined with humility, are the primary of attributes Jim Collins found in so-called “level-5 leaders.”

Finally, at their core collaborative leaders are also entrepreneurs—social or civic entrepreneurs. Their passion for the common good and genuine humility enable them to be comfortable taking risks, to be comfortable stepping outside their realm of their own authority, their comfort zones if you will. They are on the lookout for new ideas, new ways of doing things. They are open to change and are willing to stick their neck out if necessary in order to realize collaborative opportunities.

There are other important attributes of course, but these three stand out and seem to be mutually-supporting. Not all community leaders posses these personal qualities. The ones that consistently are able to catalyze community collaboration do seem to have a good measure of them, however.

This post is adapted from one that originally appeared on the School’s public leadership blog.

3 Responses to “The Heart of Collaborative Leadership”

  1. Jesse Vinson

    Great comments and so very true! I suggest you also read “The Dawn of System Leadership” by Senge, Hamilton, and Kania published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, winter 2015.

    The next question becomes “how do we find these leaders”

    Thank you

    • Rick Morse

      Thanks Jesse, I actually did a post not too long ago highlighting that very article (see I do think we should focus more attention in terms of leadership development on the attributes and skills of leading across boundaries, where you don’t have formal authority. That’s what we do in a lot of our School of Government programs, such as PELA. But we can all begin with ourselves too. What motivates the work we do in and for communities?

      • Jesse Vinson

        Rick, thank you for the reply. Since retirement 4 years ago, I’ve spent a great deal of time researching my two greatest interests: economic development and downtown revitalization. I have tried to determine why some efforts are so successful and others fail miserably. I truly believe it comes down to LEADERSHIP CAPABILITIES. I think most do not understand the level of commitment required in these positions; and, frequently end up more worried about keeping their job rather than doing their job. It just takes a lot of work to bring everyone together and get folks to concentrate on the common good and the long term benefits of their collaborations.
        Thank you again
        Jesse Vinson

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