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Courageous Collaboration

Have you ever been in a situation where you had to step out of your comfort zone to work with people or groups whose interests seemed opposed to yours? 

Have you ever needed to build bridges among silos and interest groups knowing that doing so might generate conflict and disagreement? 

Have you ever needed to stand for the positive impact that collaboration can cause even when there was not yet evidence that it will? 

If you answered “Yes,” then you have firsthand knowledge about courageous collaboration. Read on and be validated in what you’ve done. Perhaps learn how to coach others to be courageous collaborators as well. 

If you answered “No,” read on. Finding our way forward to a workable, sustainable human presence on Earth is not something any one of us can do alone. Even to create the baseline conditions for collaboration, a shared understanding of reality is enormously challenging. And time is short. To paraphrase biologist E.O. Wilson, we need to come together to use our Neolithic brains to modernize our medieval institutions fast enough to harness our exponentially expanding 21st-century technologies in service of life…all of it. Addressing problems at the complexity and scale of the ones facing humanity will require many individuals like you and me to learn to courageously collaborate. 

We don’t have to look far back in history to find courageous collaborations that enabled significant and lasting transformations.  

Here are a few examples: 

Collaborating with Opponents: Nelson Mandela and F. W. de Klerk  

One would have to seek long and hard to find a more courageous collaboration than that between Nelson Mandela, head of the African National Congress (ANC), who had spent twenty-six years in prison at the hands of the government, and F. W. de Klerk, the head of that very government and President of South Africa.  Both men had ample reason to distrust the other.  Both men faced harsh criticism from within their own political parties for any act of reconciliation with the other.  And both displayed courageous leadership to make a non-violent transition to Black majority rule in the former highly segregated state dominated by a white minority.  In October of 1993, their collaboration was acknowledged publicly when they were awarded together the Nobel Peace prize. 

What do you think enabled these unlikely collaborators to lead such a fraught and essential transition? 

Multi-Stakeholder Collaboration to Preserve Forests in the Southern US:  Brought Together by Reality 

Scott Span, in his book Solving for the Impossible, describes the unprecedented collaboration between conservationists, lumber companies, hunters, small farmers, Federal agencies, and other business interests in an attempt to preserve 250,000,000 acres of southern forest. The twenty-five people representing often conflicting interests had a huge challenge to become collaborators. 

But by learning to look through each other’s eyes and appreciate each other’s interests, and by a rigorous examination of the realities of the southern forests, they were able to make common cause. Together, they were able to step back from their individual interests and find themselves standing for the collective interests of all the beings depending on healthy forests. These collaborators were able to “align around the creation of the enabling conditions needed to maintain 245 million acres of Southern Forests and their inherent social, economic, and ecological values for the benefit of current and future generations by 2060” (Solving for the Impossible, p. 207). 

Where in your world is such coming together necessary to solve “impossible problems”? 

Ground-Breaking Collaboration: Paul Polman 

Paul Polman, famous for implementing the ground-breaking “Sustainable Living Plan”(SLP)  at the consumer goods giant, Unilever in 2010, demonstrated the qualities of courageous collaboration with business leaders, politicians, and NGOs. His time as CEO featured a different aspect of courageous collaboration than empire building – the quality of deep integrity and holding to principles in the face of little evidence the SLP would work. 

In the launch of Unilever’s SLP, Polman calls on business leaders, politicians and NGOs to embrace systems thinking, and to recognise they cannot deal with the world’s environmental and social challenges in isolation. Polman was critical of companies that claim their hands are tied by fiduciary duty to maximise profits for shareholders in the short-term, arguing that this is “too narrow a model of Milton Friedman’s old thinking. The world has moved on and these people need to broaden their education with the reality of today’s world. I don’t think our fiduciary duty is to put shareholders first. I say the opposite. What we firmly believe is that if we focus our company on improving the lives of the world’s citizens and come up with genuine sustainable solutions, we are more in synch with consumers and society and ultimately this will result in good shareholder returns.” (The Guradian, Sustainable Businesses interview, April 2012) 

Polman would go on to document his ten years of unprecendeted financial and sustainability successes and challenges in his book “Net Positive: How Courageous Companies Thrive by Giving More Than They Take”, co-authored with Andrew Winston. 

 What would enable you to collaborate with unprecedented partners to break new ground in the face of no historical evidence it will be successful? 

Commitments and Practices for Courageous Collaboration for Leaders of the Next Way 

The examples above and many more you and I could come up with (remember Lincoln’s ‘cabinet of rivals’) demonstrate that courageous collaboration rests on a set of shared commitments or fundamental values. 

Here are several core commitments for you to consider taking on to enable your courageous collaboration. 

Being committed to: 

  • a larger whole than one’s own part. 
  • having all involved take on a similar commitment. 
  • having the collaborators be guided by current reality, not opinion or ideology. 
  • having all voices and views heard, without judgment or prejudice. 
  • a vision, a stand for a future that this collaboration can accomplish. 
  • communication in good faith. 
  • ongoing updating/iterating the maps and models of the situation at which the group is at work. 

Where in your life are you being called to courageously collaborate? 

To introduce your team to the benefits and skills of Courageous Collaboration, check out Genii’s new Introductory Series workshop, Leaders for the Next Way. 




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