Achieving Growth & Opportunity requires diverse stakeholders from multiple sectors to collaborate at a very high level. A critical factor to the success of such cross-sector collaborations is leadership. For the last few years our Fund has partnered with Leadership Cleveland and Leadership Akron (links to their web sites would be nice) to promote the value of particular skills and practices that we call “collaborative civic leadership.” We recognize that collaborations are much different than traditional organizations and therefore require a different kind of leadership. Our region’s leadership programs provide an opportunity to help organizational leaders become better collaborative civic leaders.
This month, Chris Thompson, director of regional engagement for the Fund, Mark Scheffler, president of Leadership Akron, and Marcy Levy Shankman, director of Leadership Cleveland, described their work to promote collaborative civic leadership in an essay published by the Stanford Social Innovation Review. An excerpt appears below. For the full piece, click here.
Collective action—action powered by all who have a stake in social change—is essential to making progress on big, interconnected priorties like economic inequity, public safety, and public health in our communities. But it can’t happen by itself. In the recent SSIR article “The Dawn of System Leadership,” authors Peter Senge, Hal Hamilton, and John Kania articulate the value of specific capabilities—such as the ability to foster reflection and generative conversations—that enable community leaders to build and sustain the conditions for collective action on social issues.
The article implicitly asks, “Where do we find and how do we create more systems leaders?” That is a critically important question for those of us who are tasked with helping our communities strengthen their capacity to achieve sustained positive change within civic systems. While we work at different organizations, we have a shared interest in answering that question, and we are working together to more clearly define and promote the value of collaborative leadership (or what the authors call “systems leadership”). We wholeheartedly agree with the authors that we are at the beginning of the beginning in learning how to catalyze and guide systemic action.
As the Senge, Hamilton, and Kania highlight, exercising systems leadership requires different skills and capabilities than exercising organizational leadership. Most people considered to be community leaders begin their leadership journey inside an organization. Organizations have hierarchies, lines of authority, and established processes for achieving change. Those features are less clear (or completely absent) within the complex civic systems that shape education, public health, food security, safety, and other priorities.
Thousands of organizational leaders discover those differences by participating in community-based leadership programs. These programs exist in nearly every large- to medium-size community in the country. They tap organizational leaders from business, nonprofits, government, education, law, and other sectors, and expose them to an intense, months-long curriculum that strengthens their professional network, and their understanding of the opportunities and challenges within their community.
But we’ve observed that many leaders in these programs become frustrated when they realize that the skills and tools they use to create change within their organizations don’t translate well to complex civic systems. What’s more, they don’t understand why their leadership skills don’t translate.
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