Over my years of working in complex collaboration projects and institutional change management, I took notice of what shifted actors into a more collaborative space.
Shifts tended to occur around personal competences. People brought these competences in or they developed them jointly with their collaborators.
Although, nothing I noticed was radically new – what was new was the uniquely unfolding combinations of these competences, forming a constantly changing pattern of mutually supportive ingredients . And it was the aliveness of this presence that made a difference.
In a stuffy room in Salvador de Bahia all the ingredients were there. Each participant had a very valid reason for being there – be it the promotion of the business value of sustainability engagement; exploring the marketing advantages of sustainable coffee, the conviction that the initiative would really benefit small coffee farmers, or the ability to present the benefits of an ambitious public-private development project to their governments.
But, there was more to this group than the rational explanation for each stakeholder’s participation. Despite all the repeated political fights and contradictory positions, people felt that there was a climate of collective leadership for the future with respect for each other at its core. Everyone in the room was aware of the responsibility bestowed on him or her: each could make this one step toward sustainability fail or succeed. One of the participants summarized: “There was an atmosphere of commitment that made it impossible to misbehave; you would not withhold your position, but would always stay in the collaborative field. You knew that this was a global learning process we were all in together.”
What was the magic? Complex, yet simple, it was the presence of a pattern of human competences in interaction.
Over the years of building the coffee initiative people had developed a sense of FUTURE POSSIBILITIES. What had seemed impossible at the outset – to shift the global coffee market – had come within reach. This had only been possible because people had grown together beyond the difference of opinion, business rationale, culture, earnings, and world-views. They had learned to interact as people with different positions yet with compassion. They had accessed their own HUMANITY and were able to see the person behind a viewpoint and the intention behind a position. This became a cornerstone of their ability to overcome almost irreconcilable differences. They had built a process of authentic and reliable ENGAGEMENT, prerequisites for both trust and commitment to tangible outcomes and collective action. All participants in the initiative where prepared to take a risk, to venture in an unknown territory with uncertain outcomes, despite difficulties justifying their actions to superiors. They were jointly and across institutions piloting an INNOVATION by building an industry-wide value chain community. None of the stakeholder groups – industry, NGOs, or coffee-producers – would have found solutions to the sustainability challenges in green-coffee production alone. It was the gradually increasing openness to COLLECTIVE INTELLIGENCE that improved the solutions. The patience to listen even to the most critical stakeholders enabled an approach that would work for small-scale farmers as well as large-scale producers. With the participation in the coffee initiative the picture of reality widened. Exposure to such entirely different ways of operating and of viewing the same issue – coffee-production – contributed to people’s ability to see the larger context in which they were embedded. It was this sense of WHOLENESS that made it easier for people to stay in a collaborative field. People had empowered each other to jointly make a difference. I believe it is time to scale-up this Empowerment.
This blog post looks at the question of leadership for sustainability. For more information on the Art of Leading Collectively, checkout the inside the book and reviews on amazon.com, or get inspired by an onsite course that takes the compass into the daily challenges of navigating complex change.