Reconnecting with our early intention

I remember when I was a child that I never understood why people went to war. I never asked and never talked about it, but to me there was no sense in it. When I grew up in the divided city of Berlin, I began to day-dream about speaking to people about reconciling and making peace. This is what I call my early intention: without anybody telling me I felt that something needed to be changed in the world.

When you find yourself in a state of questioning your leadership contribution, I believe it is worth looking at the early part of your journey.

Your memory might be scattered or faint. It might take time to remember anything at all. But I am sure there were secret daydreams, fairy encounters, heroes you admired, books you were fascinated by, a painful experience that triggered a quest, a silent promise to yourself, dreams of discovery, visions of being a saviour, empathy with suffering, an identification with heroes who represent deeper human values.


Image by Petra Kuenkel

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Creating a collaborative field

The world has changed. Collaboration is high on the agenda for global change. In September 2015, the UN will announce the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals. While specific targets and indicators are still being finalized, one aspect is clear: multi-stakeholder collaboration between business, NGOs, government, the UN and communities will be essential to achieve the goals and they will be needed at a scale and quality that dwarfs current levels of collaboration.

This is a heavy demand to place. The process of collaboration is often slow, with different levels of understanding around what it means to enter into a multi-stakeholder collaboration process. This leads to high transaction costs, meager results and unfulfilled expectations. Collaboration across sectors with different interests, motivations, cultures and timescales is challenging.

The other day, somebody asked me, if I could explain this complex issue of multi-stakeholder collaboration in simple terms. Here is my attempt.

people_by Nick Fewings

people_by Nick Fewings

If you are about to initiate a complex multi-stakeholder initiative, or supporting one to deliver results, consider the following image:

See the collaboration as a field much like a soccer field, with clear boundaries and a set of rules how to play in it. People in the field need to play together, define the rules together, stay in the collaborative field and – above all – should not play against each other in different goals, but shoot the ball into the same goal. Now, how to make this work?

There are 4 tasks everybody must do who wants to make multi-stakeholder collaboration work:

#1: Get actors into the collaborative field: this takes time and often you need to learn a lot about the different stakeholders, before you are able to approach each differently and in the way they feel acknowledged. You need to know the emotions, aspirations, conflicts, risks, business cases, dreams, benefits and doubts. Convincing is less successful than listening and inspiring.

#2: Keep actors in the collaborative field: this is most often neglected. Some people think, once people are in, they stay in. But this is not the case. If there is no clear strategy constantly negotiated, people will drop out. If there is no genuine care-taking of concerns and interests, people will withdraw. Lack of transparency and information makes them hesitant, unclear or unreliable processes make them upset. Maintaining the energy of a collaborative field is an effort often underestimated. Trust-building is a task never finished.

#3: Negotiate the boundary: this often comes as a surprise, as if the rules of who is in and who is out, once set, will remain forever. But this is not the case in a multi-stakeholder setting. There will be constant boundary challenges. Some stakeholders will want to draw the boundaries closer; others want them wider; again others may question them altogether. Alongside with the rules of the multi-stakeholder game, maintaining or adjusting boundaries is a continual challenge.

#4: Help people play into the same goal: this is often taken as self-evident, because the collaboration is all about a joined goal. But reality is different from collective dreams. The goals get lost or take the backstage when stakeholders begin to fight over procedures, structures, and rules. Putting the goal high on the agenda, pulling it back center stage, and creating an emotional connection with the goal is paramount. This includes a constant renegotiation of a common goals as multi-stakeholder initiatives move towards implementation.

You know that you are managing the collaborative field well, when there is an atmosphere of commitment that makes it impossible to completely misbehave despite differences in opinions and positions. People then intuitively know when the goal is at stake and they do not want to take the risk of making the collaboration effort fail. When people stay in the collaborative field despite occasional mistrust, negotiated progress and lived-through tensions – then you have done your job, The system of collaborating actors has matured.

This blog post looks at the dimension of ENGAGEMENT and zooms into the aspect of PROCESS QUALITY in the Collective Leadership Compass at the level of collaboration systems. For more insights on leading collectively with the Compass, subscribe to my blog. You can also find my article on Navigating Change in Complex Multi-Actor Settings: A Practice Approach to Better Collaboration in the latest issue no. 58 of the Journal for Corporate Citizenship.

Collective leaders create new pathways

Whenever I have experienced a group’s commitment to collective action for sustainability, there was an insight palpable in the room: Leading for sustainability is not an act in isolation. It requires

  • leadership by various individuals towards a similar goal on a collective scale,
  • trust in a common goal that everybody will contribute to differently, yet in alignment
  • cross-sector collaboration without hierarchy or central coordination
  • a preparedness to join a collective learning journey.

I believe the capacity for leading, initiating, facilitating and sustaining the construction of meaningful futures is enfolded in all of us. In that way collective leaders

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Can crises be opportunities?

Experiences of powerlessness, defeat and crises are gateways to a deeper perception of reality. Sometimes they are gateways to a greater transformation. We know this from our life path.

  • What if we were able to discover much earlier that there is a crisis emerging that could lead to an opportunity?

When the boundaries of our constructed identity are shaken, we become insecure, feel powerless and have difficulties to handle the uncertainty that comes with it. This is a signpost that is worth observing. If we learn to not ignore it, not fight it, not correct it, not emotionally react to it, but pause for a little while we might make friends with the crisis much earlier.

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What is your contribution?

A couple of years ago I had a visitor staying in my home in South Africa. He was a businessman from India who for most of his career was very successfully involved in the construction industry in India. He himself meditated and taught in his tradition in India and other parts of the world. When he sat in my living room he explained to me:

“The first half of your life you spend exploring the world and yourself. You take in and take in; the world serves your own growth. The second half of your life you spend giving back and you do this for the rest of your life. You serve the world and you serve people. It is important not to miss that turning point. So what is your contribution? What do you serve?”

I did not have an instant answer to his question and it took a few moments before I realized that he did not expect one.

When we begin to sense that our leadership contribution needs to be reconsidered, a question like this strikes us like a sudden uncomfortable memory. We are pushed beyond our comfort zone. We have enough demands placed on us; we do not need more.


The question remained in my mind for years. As with all questions that aim directly at the heart, it became a constant reminder of my journey. It took a year or two before I was finally prepared to grow slowly into an answer.

 If we allow that to happen, such questions reach our heart. We know when we set out on our journey that this is what we intuitively wanted to do – serve the world. We might have become far more realistic, much more sensible, and slightly more cynical. But we sense the underlying quest. And it is important to revive the quest: we’ll discover the treasure we have always been looking for. The purpose of our early intention was to do something for the benefit of humankind.

This blog post looks at the dimension of WHOLENESS and zooms into the aspect of CONTRIBUTION in the Collective Leadership Compass at the level of individuals. For more insights on leading collectively with the Compass, subscribe to my blog or read more in my book: Mind and Heart, Mapping Your Personal Journey towards Leadership for Sustainability, 2008


When is the goal big enough?

If what we serve is not big enough, not really aligned with our heart or too short-sighted for our heart’s intuition, we will perform well, possibly commit, but our hearts won’t be in it.

Real service needs the engagement of the heart.

As we walk through life, we may at times feel inspired and full of energy, at other times we feel a lack of direction. Most often the latter happens when we have lost the meaning of what we do, we don’t feel we can make a difference.

Many change programs in companies are based on aligning people with a goal that is made worth achieving. They tap into this natural desire to make a difference. It is known that people who see meaning in their organizational endeavors work and lead with more inner resourcefulness. Being part of something larger and working towards it together with others, is what gives us energy. But what, if the goal is not big enough? If it does not touch our heart?

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The future of leadership is collective

No matter, if we think about a world with renewable energy, secure water or intelligent democracy, it is no longer a question of whether working towards sustainability needs to become the mainstream focus of local and global leaders, but rather how to face the challenge of making this happen. The leadership of many individuals towards a similar goal on a collective scale is needed. In our globalized world, innovation for sustainability is based on people’s ability to think together and to cooperate across sectors, nations and cultures.

Wherever I work with teams across institutions who are committed to a cause, irrespective of whether it is about creating responsible supply chains, innovative technology for climate adaptation, stakeholder engagement for water resource management or sustainable city development, it is about making collaboration effective.

It means

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Engaging with future possibilities is a way of life

What would you expect, if you read a book written by a 95 year old lady? If you are like me, you would expect that she looks back at her life. What if you read her book and, apart from a few analyses on what she had learned from life, she is actually looking forward, inspiring you to engage with a future full of possibilities?

The book I am talking about is “The Next American Revolution”, by Grace Lee Boggs. A fascinating account of a person who has seen it all – born just after the World War I, a social activist deeply engaged in community work and political change at an age most of us expect ourselves to wind down. She always loved engaging with a revolutionary future.

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Creating a paradigm shift

The other day a colleague of mine sent me an inspiring reminder, a timeless contribution that I believe needs to be unearthed again. It was Donella Meadows’ article: Leverage Points – Places to Intervene in a System. If we look at the state of the world, humankind’s many attempts and mediocre results to take us on the road to sustainability, this is an article that makes you think – and hopefully act. You will recognize how many aspects of sustainability initiatives are stuck in regulatory approaches that – according to her – are very low on the list of effectiveness of leverage points. The second highest effective leverage point, she suggests, is the power to create a paradigm shift. This is what she says about how to create a paradigm shift:

“You keep pointing at the anomalies and failures of the old paradigm, you keep speaking louder and with assurance from the new one, you insert people with the new paradigm in places of public visibility and power. You don’t waste time with reactionaries; rather you work with active change agents and with the vast middle ground of people who are open-minded.”

And with that she challenges each of us – the most powerful leverage point for sustainability is our own mind. Starting from there, we can get structures in place, ensure information flow for positive and negative feedback loops and get regulations set-up.

It is not too difficult to think us into a future state in which global common goods are managed well; governments serve their people; economies are lively and at service of people and planet, and everybody can live their potential. It is more difficult to imagine how we could get there from where we are today. That is where the global learning journey starts – an exciting one, as no one country, one actor, one societal group knows the answer, but each of them may hold a piece of a great puzzle. I believe, it is the art of leading collectively that will make a difference.

What are elements of a paradigm shift towards sustainability? And how do they relate to the Collective Leadership Compass?

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Fostering commitment for change is an art one can learn

Collective action for sustainability must be guided by a leadership paradigm that is inspirational, fosters commitment by various actors and acknowledges the role of collective contributions to decision-making. Leading, here, can be seen as a co-creative process that often begins with a small group of people and aims at profound collective change.

Overcoming the challenges that lie ahead of us requires building teams within our organization, action groups across several institutions or even networks for change. We need to integrate different organizational cultures into joint initiatives and foster collaboration between actors that are often not even used to communicating with each other.

“Only dedicated circles can give birth to something new”.

This saying by a circle of African wise women captures an important learning in sustainability leadership: Engagement often starts small, not big, and it requires a team of committed people. I call this: building containers for change.

The term ‘Container’ refers to such a committed team of actors and describes its function and relational quality. A good ‘container’ exists if

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