Collaborative Leadership: The curse of the Turf

The Practice Collection

I grew up in a culture where competition was considered to be the perfect cultural crucible for both the development of high quality products and the eventual material and market success of such.

Success in the marketplace required a disciplined, focused and highly competitive belief and attitude in order to be a winner. Fair enough, I suppose if you are making toasters or motorcycles. I really would not know as I have no experience, training or really any future in the business world. But I am ok with that and I respect my dad and millions of other business people who have made a contribution through their business dealings and hard work.

What I am less ok with, though, is the increase of what I would call business veneration or “business creep,” moving deeper into the traditional non-business world.

The most current example of this business creep if you will pardon the irony, is the embarrassing success of Donald Trump into the public sector, a classic case of business creep if you will …

I have written before about what I saw as the approaching genuflection of public servants, educators, arts professionals, policemen and that guy in the coffee shop, to the emerging belief that we need to run our country, our provinces, our cities and our public and not for profit organizations “like a business.”

Of course to do this we should elect, hire, appoint or at the very least, pray for, a fine successful businessman to take us poor helpless, inefficient, lazy non-business types into the “real world.”

Well be careful what you pray for …

We have a lot of folks who these days just see citizens as customers and consumers, not owners, land as real estate, not a resource, forests as just lumber not a sustainable legacy and prisons, schools and hospitals as potential profit centers not human service centers.

So when you see this as your new world view a big switch gets flipped … you also start to see the world through a competitive business lens rather than the more collaborative leadership model that strives to help us at least try to get along rather than crush the opposition. There are so many examples of these two points of view colliding including …

Workers who have been sold on the competitive model against each other throwing out the old collaborative model of standing together.
Your own smart self would, of course, far better manage important life elements like a pension, then by collaborating with a million others.
Banks and Wal-Mart’s are so successful in the business markets and so they must be much better than those old school credit unions and co-ops that saw you as a collaborative member instead of just a consumer.
So I may have lost you there with all that commie crap, but good luck in a Trump lead new business model of government where those messy things like regulations and values that were supposed to protect…well everything, I guess, like those necessities that your great grandchildren will need to stay alive and relatively healthy on this planet.

But the good news is that there are people out there who are trying real hard to play on a different skating rink …

In the arts world, I enjoyed the conversations and engagement opportunities in our community as we considered the possibilities around creating arts based district eventually called the Music Mile.

One of the early reactions that was of big interest to me was some of the first reactions from the direct contact with those on the front lines of the music business. It is a tough world. The venues work incredibly hard to create a space where musicians might succeed and for the musicians it is more of a gravel road than a paved highway …

Turns out, there is not that big a market out there these days for live music these days what with the comfortable couch, the headphones, the devices and the downturns.

So some of the first reactions from the music people were a bit skeptical. They would point out that there was very little work out here right now and we really don’t need more of the same. Why would you promote more venues and more musicians in a competitive environment that’s killing us?

There was the word again…competitive. We are all so busy fighting over our piece of the same small pie. For me the irony was troublesome…we are all so busy and stressed struggling over the small pie that we see no possibility in collaborating together to work on making the pie bigger.

Its not rocket science…take a look at a simple concept like an auto mall. Here in Calgary all the auto competitors decided to collaborate and they created a whole neighborhood dedicated to getting you into another car. They all have a different product and approach but the collaboration in creating an “auto district” brings thousands of people into the neighborhood daily creating, yes indeed, a bigger pie. They put all the market forces in on geographic location, celebrate the auto and grow a bigger pie.

Still we tend to worship the cutthroat competitive leadership models and see the collaborative ones as soft around the middle. I watched as this competitive business model crept into the public sector and non-government sectors. Management was encouraged to become more business like in the approach and so we had the rise of more metrics for things can’t be measured, increased command and control instead of empowerment, and the hope of technical solutions for human problems. The big deal in this culture was always the highly competitive concept of “turf.” My territory, my budget, my people and my prestige were primary driving forces in how the culture would be created.

Again you can see the small pies being fought over rather than a collaborative model that would allow playing and succeeding on a bigger and more challenging field.

Share an executive assistant…you have got to be kidding me!

Five different ministries who all have water issues in their mandate could form one water organization…are you serious!

Wait a minute…this has actually happened…The Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre here in Calgary has managed to get seven Ministries to give up their turf on child trauma issues (city police, health, social services, justice, therapeutic, education and RCMP) This Integrated Practice model has led the way as they serve the child through one door. There is actually more to it then that…the collaborative model has now integrated all three workplace sectors in the effort (private sector philanthropy, public service expertise and funding and local not for profit (public good) co-operation).

For all these leaders involved the decision to give up budget, people and authority (turf) was a paradigm shift of the greatest magnitude.

I found another amazing story in Revelstoke BC where a public service biologist, Cory Legebokow had a passion for pregnant caribou that were being decimated by predators. There was no single solution to be found solely in his organization so he stepped outside his turf. He approached a private sector helicopter company and asked if they could transport pregnant caribou. They could. He approached some local First Nations and asked if they could provide shepherd services to pregnant caribou. They could. He approached farmers for feed, other departments for shared costs, local businesses for lumber and citizens for labor gathering lichen for food … they all could.

His collaborative leadership model led to the establishment of the public benefit organization called Revelstoke Caribou Rearing in the Wild, where for the past four years dozens of caribou moms now safely give birth every year…. a classic example of a leadership model that pulls all sectors together on a clear issue and takes the competitive and power elements out of leadership and replaces it with sharing responsibility and collaboration.

There are more and more of these collaborative vs. competitive stories out there and I am on a hunt for more.

I am also fascinated with the personal leadership back-story behind these bigger stories. The women and men whose leadership values gave them the innovation, design and courage to do their leadership work differently are perhaps the role models for a collaborative leadership model now emerging.

These leaders will give up something …

They will give up direct authority.
They will give up the efficacy of the org chart
They will give up the comforting embrace of hierarchy.
They will give u the prestige of power.
They will give up their pen on the cheques.
They will give up the ease of one-way directive communication.
But they will also get something …

They will learn again the joy and strength of big engaged conversations instead of the soul sucking micro-managed presentations.
They will again become true systems thinkers and will be constantly playing in the whole system instead of the silos.
They will have to learn to create leaders instead of just looking in the mirror every morning.
They will find themselves fondly throwing off the bonds of hierarchy, bureaucracy of back office rules
They will learn to appreciate the difference between efficiency (get ‘er done”) and effectiveness (do the right thing)
They will find themselves with a whole new suite of “engagement tools” as they seek to more fully engage their workplaces, their stakeholders and the citizens they serve.
We will one day call this collaborative leadership.