Illuminating Collaborative Leadership

On cultivating mindset and aligning intention for effective community change


This blog is based on a workshop I conducted at the Montana Nonprofit Association Resolve 2020 virtual conference.

What’s the “secret sauce” of effective collaborations? A great logic model or grant source doesn’t guarantee success. Too often initiatives fall short of their original aspirations. Collaborative work is at its essence a human endeavor, and underlying most success stories are people who intentionally cultivate the work.

What do we mean by mindset?

Our mindset is the collection of underlying assumptions, beliefs and habits of mind that influence how we think about our life and work. Picture the popular iceberg metaphor, in which all the things visible above the surface – our plans, goals and measurements – are being influenced by things that lie below the surface: our assumptions, fears of failure and fears of success, our beliefs about how things work, about other people and their motives and agendas, our sense of self-worth. These things form our mindset.

Being aware of our mindsets, and “mindful” of others’ is critical to growing our own collaborative practice. As a facilitative leader, I’ve found tools to help nurture the collaborative mindset within teams. Here are some of the ingredients in my “secret sauce.”

Fostering Belonging

“Belonging suggests when you join something, you have the power and standing to participate in the cocreation of the thing you’re joining,” observes john a. powell of the Othering and Belonging Institute. Each of us has at some point joined a group with invisible rules and relationships, groups that expected us to leave our “real selves” at the door. That’s not belonging.  That’s not creating spaces where we can be authentic and bring our best.

Three strategies I regularly use to foster belonging are: establish guiding principles for how we strive to work together (I use ones developed by the National Equity Project); have a specific onboarding process for new partners; and ensure everyone’s voice is in the room at every meeting.

Embracing Ambiguity

During this year of pandemic and social upheaval, we have toned our sea legs for managing through change, with some good days and some very bad days. And yet change is a constant in multi-sector collaborative work, by the very nature of the work we do. Complex issues – such as housing, education and health care – are difficult to frame, involve diverse stakeholders, and share characteristics and dynamics that evolve and change over time.

I encourage groups to begin by naming it. We acknowledge that the work is complex, and we invite in humility and curiosity. Visuals help. The Tamarack Institute has a fun graphic that shows a smooth path to victory (our ideal) compared to one with potholes and boulders, rain clouds and swamps (our reality). It gets us chuckling, but it also reassures us that we are not alone in our challenges. We are, as Donella Meadows so beautifully advised, “dancing with the system”.

Cultivating Empathy

Empathy – the capacity to step into other people’s shoes, to understand and share the feelings of another – is one of the most important practices in mindset for my work these days. As we all struggle to maintain a semblance of balance in a world upended, our need to understand one another – and “the other” – feels central to our democracy.  Empathy is also a key component of design thinking, with organizations such as IDEO guiding us to understand the user experience when we design strategies and programs.

Cultivating empathy within collaborative teams is also central to establishing trust. Two other tools from Liberating Structures – Appreciative Interviews and the Nine WHYs – emphasize personal storytelling to deepen our connections to one another and to the work. Another popular practice is Appreciative Inquiry, which specifically emphasizes a strength-based approach to connecting with one another and our work.

Prioritizing Reflection

As baseball great Yogi Berra one said, “We don’t know where we’re going, but we’re making good time.”  It’s amazing to me how little reflection we build into our work. True, we’re often working hard, and the work is urgent.  Yet making time to truly check in – with self and with team – is central to deepening our understanding and moving forward with impact.

I regularly create space within meetings for personal and team reflection. Another Liberating Structure, 1-2-4-ALL, encourages us to sit in silence, then share with another person, and then as a group. (Introverts love this one!) I also incorporate questions, like What are you noticing? Why does that matter? More structurally, I encourage projects to calendar reflection into their workplan. While similar to evaluation, reflection allows us to “improve” rather than “prove” the impact of our efforts.

Cultivating mindset includes many other aspects, from personal meditation and nutritional well-being to spiritual and community practices. I’d love to hear how you cultivate a collaborative mindset.



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