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Collective Leadership – Stepping Out of the Box

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As we were discussing the creation of the design team for the LLC national meeting, Creating Space, someone posed a radical question that went something like, “What if we welcomed everyone who wanted to be part of the design process with the understanding that they would contribute in whatever way they could and whenever they could?” This was being suggested instead of selecting from a pool of community members who responded to an invitation sent to the entire community and who indicated their interest in participating on the design team. If there had been a camera in the room snapping the look on my face at that very instant, I’m certain it would have shouted – “Are you kidding?!!” As a matter of fact, I’m sure I voiced a much softer version expressing my concern and objection to the idea.

Creating Space has always been a collaborative effort – a Design Team of staff, board members and invited participants in the community, joining together to create a design around a particular theme, but it’s usually a much smaller group of six or so. Thankfully, in the spirit of inclusivity and the prospect of experimenting with new ways of working together, including face-to-face, conference calls and the use of virtual technologies such as a wiki to communicate ideas, roles and tasks, and to collectively create the agenda, my concerns eased – after all, we are a learning community. Although, I confess to moving forward haltingly with a bit of skepticism as to how this would all play out.
It never ceases to amaze me, the level of commitment and participation folks in the LLC community demonstrate in giving of their time, energy and resources, especially in the current economic climate. Our design team had 16 people who participated and worked together, each contributing to the whole, to shape the national meeting. At our initial meeting we agreed on a list of “Beliefs and Behaviors” about how to work together which helped in building trust. A key component of working together collaboratively in a collective process is building that high degree of mutual trust – a safe place where ideas can be exchanged and heard. It was important that we allow for the time to get to know one another and so we made an effort to have as many face-to-face meetings as people’s schedules would allow (there were two design team members who were out of state who called in).
In their workbook, “The Collective Leadership Framework,” the Kellogg Leadership for Community Change, an initiative of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, identifies an aspect of collective leadership that, upon reflection, I found extremely relevant and meaningful to this experience. “Collective leadership is about learning new ways of thinking and doing (and unlearning others!).” That sentence resonated for me, among other self-revelations, when I began to look back on my experience as a team member in a process of collective design. My deepest and most meaningful learning generally emerges slowly, over time . . . the deepest aha’s occur as fragments that take some piecing together.
In her August 3rd blog, Claire identified letting go of your attachment to outcome as one of the learning’s we (LLC) have had about collaborations. One of the biggest barriers I personally experienced, having participated in the design of six previous LLC national meetings, was arriving at this one with a definite investment in outcome on multiple levels. Each time an idea was put forward that veered from my own fixed ideas based on previous experience, I found myself physically and mentally closing off. Thinking, oh no, we can’t possible do that! One of my concerns in inviting all interested LLC community members into the design process was that it might actually be more difficult to manage. In fact, having started out the process agreeing on what we wanted to achieve, over time each team member took up and owned a piece of the work. The design also developed collectively using virtual tools including a wiki to document meetings, share ideas and communicate about tasks. My concern that it would result in more work for staff never happened; in fact, this amazing team not only contributed to the design, but played an integral role at the event itself! When a design team member suggested having something he called a CreativeSPACE, I found myself once again retreating to the box. Not only did he host the table, but he went ahead and purchased most of the supplies. The CreativeSPACE resulted in a wonderful wall piece of participant mounted photos and received some of the most positive feedback from participants.
The learning, for me, from this collective experience was deep and I will take it with me in our work on the Leadership for a New Era (an LLC collaborative endeavor). I learned to move out of my comfort zone and unlearn some things, be open to new ideas and ways of working together. It took a little time and some distance, but the design team experience taught me to open the door to the box I put myself in and leave my assumptions behind.