Don’t just compromise — collaborate

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The Colorado Senate — just like the U.S. Congress — recently adopted the “budget that nobody wanted.” Compromise was needed to keep government running, but neither Democrats nor Republicans were satisfied with the results. “The really good (budgets) are the ones that all people hate,” said Sen. Bill Cadman, R-Co Springs, as reported April 12th in the Denver Post, “This is one of those.”

The best thing we can usually say about compromise when it comes to complex issues is this: we got through today’s symptom of the problem. The core challenge remains and often looms larger. As long as we are trapped in the mindset of “give a little to get a little,” nothing new, innovative or impressive gets created.

Is this really the best we can do?

I’m afraid it is — unless leadership grows up and learns to collaborate. Legislators, policy makers, business leaders and local decision makers need to stop posturing and politicking, bickering and blaming. They need to quit pitting “us” versus “them.” It may get you promoted, re-positioned or re-elected, but when it comes to important issues it’s low performance leadership.

In spite of the news headlines, I believe change is possible. I’ve seen CEOs, leadership teams and line managers learn to collaborate, work interdependently and grow bigger minds. People from all walks of life, including my cab driver on a recent trip, get it! Of course we are all connected! Of course we need to creatively collaborate! Of course we cannot be limited to either/or, all-or-nothing solutions.

So, how to begin? What does it take to go from “interesting idea” to “getting it done?” The process isn’t simple, or one-size-fits-all. But here are five key steps:

First, understand that a hierarchy of leadership cultures exists. Just like human development, our cultures of working together can grow and advance. Individuals and cultures gain capability as they advance from dependent to independent to interdependent. Each stage is more capable of dealing with more ambiguity and complexity than the previous one. So the question becomes: do you have the level of leadership you need to get where you need to go? In the corporate world, this translates to analyzing the gap between the current leadership culture and the one required by the business strategy. What are the relationships between what we say we’ll do and the realistic capability we have to do it? Can we actually execute this brilliant strategy with today’s collective leadership mindset?

Second, change beliefs and you change the culture. Beliefs drive decisions and repeated decisions drive practice. If you want change, then you need to change your beliefs, your assumptions — your internal operating system. If you want best practices then you need to develop best beliefs.

Next, learn new skills. Four arts (or practices) can develop interdependent, collaborative leadership. The first art is dialogue, using collaborative inquiry and creative conversations to create direction, alignment and commitment around the challenges that matter most. The second art is creating headroom, working with the required time, space, risk-taking, learning, and modeling to “lift up” the leadership mindset up to a new, collaborative order of thought and action. The third art, boundary spanning, is the ability to work across horizontal, vertical, demographic, geographic and stakeholder boundaries. The fourth art is developing leadership from the inside-out, exploring the core values, beliefs, identity, emotions, intuition and imagination of everyone.

Finally, stop calling it the soft stuff. Collaboration — working interdependently — is the hardest work you will ever do. It’s a leadership version of four-dimensional chess — playing on multiple boards all at once. But, it’s a challenge we cannot ignore. Our interdependent world requires nothing less than interdependent leadership.

John McGuire is a senior faculty member and Transformation Practice Leader at the Center for Creative Leadership’s Colorado Springs campus and co-author of Transforming Your Leadership Culture.