Throughout the Fund for Our Economic Future’s work with dozens of collaborations, we are regularly reminded of the critical role leadership plays not only in creating the conditions for collaboration but also in catalyzing and sustaining the collaboration process.

We have identified three collaborative leadership skills that are essential to supporting and sustaining cross-sector collaborations. These skills are distinct from, but often complementary to, the skills leaders use within their own respective organizations.

The skills are:

  • Understanding Context – Before they can catalyze systems change, stakeholders must recognize they are operating within a complex system. Change occurs differently within complex systems than it does within organizations. Collaborative leaders engage with others to explore whether stakeholders recognize the need for change, can agree on shared goals, and are willing to assume shared responsibility to achieve those goals. Key contextual elements that leaders need to understand include:

    • Climate for Collaboration – Does the community have a history of collaboration? Is there sufficient alignment and trust among stakeholders?
    • Capacity – Collaboration requires specific functions be performed, including shared learning among stakeholders, consistent communications and shared measurement. If a system lacks these capacities, they will need to be built and sustained.
    • Chunkiness – Complex systems don’t change all at once. What chunk do we start with? Collaborative leadership helps identify which chunk or chunks offer the most promise for early wins.

  • Inquiry – Collaborative leaders need to understand the motivations and priorities of other stakeholders within the system. Such understanding can be achieved by exercising inquiry skills, especially the skill of asking compelling questions. Compelling questions prompt conversations that help us improve our decision-making, create learning opportunities, direct our focus, engage others, influence our thinking and ultimately build trust among stakeholders.
  • Building Trust – The absence of clear lines of authority within complex systems increases the value of trust among the stakeholders that make up the system. We are more willing to invest time, talent and treasure with those we trust. That is why collaboration moves at the speed of trust. Collaborative civic leaders use their inquiry skills to understand what it will take for stakeholders to develop more trust with each other. They also adopt behaviors that build trust.

The following articles from Stanford Social Innovation Review help build a foundation of shared understanding for civic leaders interested in catalyzing cross-sector collaboration.

Collective Impact” by John Kania and Mark Kramer: Effectively makes the case that only through rigorous, intentional collaboration can we achieve sustained positive community change.

Embracing Emergence” by John Kania and Mark Kramer: When we have a better understanding of complexity the case for collaboration becomes clearer.

The Dawn of System Leadership” by Peter Senge, Hal Hamilton and John Kania: Catalyzing change within complex systems requires distinct leadership capabilities.

A Safe Place to Practice” by Chris Thompson, Mark Scheffler and Marcy Levy-Shankman: Makes the case that community-based leadership programs can provide leaders with a safe place to develop and practice their systems/collaborative civic leadership skills.