by Helena Meryman
What does it mean to be a relevant leader? The challenges we face today ask us to rethink the role of leadership and to focus on its purpose: reducing our impact on the environment to a sustainable level, improving the prospects and security of the poor and regenerating previously damaged ecosystems. Collaborative leadership has emerged both as part of the solution and a means to working out the rest of the problem.
Along those lines, Forbes reports that Patagonia is helping Walmart green its supply-chain and develop a product-specific sustainability index. And apparently Patagonia is doing this all for free. Who knows, there may be some kind of traditional compensation down the line, but with Patagonia’s history it’s totally conceivable that the “only” pay-off is that the world will be a better place when a giant like Walmart emulates the practices of a pioneer like Patagonia. This is a demonstration of real purpose-driven leadership. The Switzer Foundation introduced me to collaborative, purpose-focused leadership with the 1998 writing “Leadership in the 21st Century” which envisioned a necessarily new approach to leadership. It is inspiring to see this take root — the Patagonia-Walmart alliance gives hope that maybe everything will work out in the end.
Why is a new approach necessary? One of the reasons is globalization – it increases the rate at which change occurs and complicates the landscape of “sustainability issues” (climate disruption, water insecurity, mass migration to pick just a few). We know that “complexity challenges every individual’s capacity to fully understand or intuit the many interrelated systems… complexity requires shared leadership, and multiple perspectives” (ref). While hierarchical leadership still exists and in many cases dominates, there is a clear movement toward shared leadership structures at both at the “top” and “bottom” of the extant power pyramid.
How does it work? Some of the basic principles of this “new” leadership are already obvious: foster communication and create a learning-focused environment. Truly embracing collaborative leadership also requires a deep paradigm shift. Self-reflection is an important aspect of serving with authenticity and humility. A successful leader will be in service, facilitating and asking “what do you need?” — helping others to shine. Following these principles expands leadership beyond traditional roles. When the “top” practices inclusiveness all stakeholders are empowered to act and collective wisdom surfaces.
Today’s interrelated challenges can’t be solved by a “commander” at the top, but it is essential to have a steward who champions solution-finding that responds to diverse needs. At a recent lecture I was heartened by Dr. John Holdren’s account of the intense interaction that occurs between experts (more Nobel Laureates and National Academy of Science members than any previous administration) and stakeholders that regularly convene with President Obama.
At the bottom of the pyramid, collaborative leadership is responding to climate disruption. Voices from developing world countries have brought climate justice to the fore. Collective actions to influence policy are dramatically increasing. These actions are springing from organizations (such as 350.org) that are every bit about inspiring community leadership.
We are all needed to lead (and its going to be a long journey). So do what you can to maintain your enthusiasm, take a break before you need it — nothing kills good ideas like cynicism. In less than two weeks, the GreenerMind Summit is a great opportunity to refuel on inspiration.
Helena Meryman is an engineer, green building professional and sustainability thinker; she will be exploring shared leadership with change-makers of all kinds at the GreenerMind Summit in June.