Collaborative Leadership

An Open Letter: The Choice is Yours

I’ve gotten a few questions over the week on last week’s blog post and how to bring traumatic issues to closure and move forward. As I was driving one afternoon I began to imagine myself as a plant manager for a Japanese owned factory in China. Some of these factories have been shuttered due to the protests over the Diaoyudao islands in the East China Sea.

Senkaku Islands

The relationship between Japan and China has many dark moments. Most recently, between 1931 and 1945 Japan carried out barbarous attacks in China. While one could argue that several generations have passed since then, the trauma and losses are not easily forgotten.

I drafted a statement and have worked with Nancy Wiser of Wiser Strategies who advises clients on how to handle crises, to craft a message that would help in such a time of crisis. Here is the statement I would make…

“We understand the concern the citizens of China have over the islands between Japan and China and we understand the history between our two countries. We regret what our ancestors have done in China and unfortunately there is nothing that can be done about the past except to acknowledge it and express our regret for it.

“Beyond that, there is nothing you can do about that, there is nothing I can do about it. We can only move forward.

“We respect all of you as citizens of China and citizens of the world. We would like to continue to work with you. We would like to move forward. We would like to put the past behind us.

“You and I cannot control what our governments do. While we can vote and express ourselves peacefully in the streets as you have done, we cannot absolutely control our governments.

“I would like us to focus on moving forward. What can we do in this city today, at this factory to move forward? You can make a choice, we in our company can make a choice. Do you wish to prosper together? We are in business together. We have a factory here and would like for all of us to prosper.

“Every day that we are closed you lose money and we lose money. If you would like to work together to move forward, to create jobs, to help build a lifestyle that you would like and that we would like, then let us figure out how to work together peacefully.

“In this moment the choice is yours. Again, we respect each and every one of you as citizens of the world. We ask that you come together with us to build a prosperous business. The choice is yours and we sincerely hope that you will choose to move forward with us. Thank you.”

Keywords: leadership, trauma, grief, protests, riots, Senkaku islands, Diaoyudao islands

Share on Facebook

Are You Collaborating or Colliding?

Many Americans are weary of the partisan politics and unwillingness for each side to work together to solve critical problems in the United States. This week I’d like to highlight the value of collaboration with a project in Kentucky and challenge you to look for ways you can collaborate that will create innovative projects that you might not otherwise embark upon.

Research Triangle Park Headquarters

Lexington and Louisville are the largest cities in Kentucky and in many ways have been bitter rivals, whether it is basketball, business, or horses. However, last year the mayors of Lexington and Louisville, Jim Gray and Greg Fischer, developed an outline for a joint economic development effort, called Bluegrass Economic Advancement Movement (BEAM). This endeavor is meant to put a spotlight on the corridor between Lexington and Louisville as a center for advanced manufacturing—the adoption of cutting edge manufacturing processes to produce innovative or technologically complex products.

Putting this focus on the region, this collaboration, will spark worldwide economic development interest in the area. It will also create a culture that will promote education and a strong work ethic as well as attract and retain top talent. For an example of how this might play out we can look at the North Carolina Research Triangle area. In the mid-1950s North Carolina was home to furniture manufacturing, textiles, and tobacco production. Concerned about the loss of bright and talented young people to other areas, a few visionary and influential individuals in the state gathered and began to work on the concept of a research park in the Chapel Hill, Durham, Raleigh region. As they say, the rest is history. Research Triangle Park (RTP), a 7,000 acre region nestled in the center of those cities, now employs over 40,000 people.

My challenge to you is to look beyond your daily span of activities. Are there groups within your organization from whom you have shied away from who could provide a synergy with which you can create new products, distribution channels, marketing and sales efforts, or new target markets? Are there other organizations you could partner with to create new offerings or open up new channels or geographic regions?

Collaboration is key. As you harness the power of more individuals working toward a common goal you can build something much greater than you would have been able to build on your own and all will benefit. Those unwilling to collaborate are looking out for their own self-interests and may one day find themselves stranded on an island.


  • Look for groups within or outside your organization with whom you can partner with to create new products, offerings, distribution channels, target markets, etc.
  • Develop a compelling vision and goals for the outcome of this effort
  • Work together to achieve the goals, taking the temperature of each party along the way

Keywords: leadership, collaboration


  • (2012, Summer). First Person: Lexington and Louisville Mayors Form a Strategic Economic Development Partnership. Area Development. Retrieved from
  • Link, A. N., & Scott, J. T. (2003). The growth of Research Triangle Park. Small Business Economics, 20(2), 167-175.
Share on Facebook

A Tale of Two Leaders: Authentic Leadership

Today I’d like to illustrate a few points with a story that plays out in many variations in countless organizations across the globe.

Brad is a hard-working, creative project leader at Vector Software. He and his team have identified a new method of discovering devices on their networks, called NU for Network Ubiquity. This will greatly simplify and shorten their installation process. Unfortunately the state of the economy prevents them from fully developing and integrating the technology in their software product.


The following year Andy, a peer project leader is able to make a case for a significant amount of funding for the next release of their software. He realizes the value of NU technology and instructs his team to develop and implement it.

While Andy and his group do not take credit for inventing the technology, nevertheless, Brad is furious. He feels that his group, as the inventors of the technology, should have been given the task of completing the development. He and his team take issue with the technology and begin to assert that it has many drawbacks and should not be implemented under any circumstances.

As we stand and view this scenario from a distance we can see two unfortunate behaviors Brad is exhibiting. First, he is allowing his ego to take control. He feels that he and his team deserve to bring the product to market since they were the inventors. Secondly, he turns away from what he believes deep down, that NU technology is beneficial to the product and organization.

How do you think others will view Brad at this point? When he speaks how will they know if he really believes in what he is saying? Will he change his tune again next week?

Alternatively, Brad and his team could have felt honored that their technology was being adopted and have offered to help in any way they could. While he may feel that Andy and his team end up looking like heros because they were the ones to implement the technology, those in the know would remember both where it came from and Brad’s response to the situation. In the long run Brad’s stature would rise along with Andy’s.

I understand that in many organizations where competitiveness is promoted that Andy could wear his achievement on his shirt sleeves and use it to move ahead of Brad. Such cultures breed leaders who work to promote themselves rather than build great products. The ultimate result is mediocrity and loss of true high performers who choose to work elsewhere. In such a case Brad should ensure his leaders remember who the inventors of NU technology were and allow Andy to gain points for bringing it to market. No matter how toxic the culture is, unless Brad remains true to his values, he will lose credibility and find it harder to recruit and lead high performing team members.


  • Observe yourself to see if your ego is controlling your actions
  • Remain true and authentic in your beliefs and actions

Keywords: leadership, authentic, collaboration

Share on Facebook

Avoiding Culture Clash

Over the past several years Chinese construction companies have broadened their reach, aggressively pursuing projects in the West and Middle East. Unfortunately, several of these projects have run amok, falling prey to the ignorance of local regulations, insensitivity to culture, and importation of foreign workers. Notable examples are a section of highway in Poland and several projects in Saudi Arabia.


China Overseas Engineering Group (COVEC), a division of the China Railway Engineering Corp (CREC), underbid European contractors on a 30 mile segment of highway the Polish government had hoped to complete before the European Championship soccer matches in early June 2012. They didn’t underbid by just a little, but by about half. European contractors cried foul but were overruled. Work began and COVEC hired some local contractors and imported Chinese workers at low labor rates. Then the process began to bog down due to shoddy workmanship, inadequate review of specifications, and inexperience. Cash flow slowed and material costs began to rise. The result was unpaid workers and the dismissal of COVEC after they demanded an additional $320M to complete the project.

Several Chinese companies have departed from the Saudi Arabian market when their construction quality could not meet local quality standards. When asked to meet those standards they requested price hikes that would put the cost in the same ballpark as those from experienced, high quality US and European companies. The Saudis opted to go with the proven contractors instead.

In a similar fashion, when you are leading your team into new geographic markets it is important to immerse yourself into the fabric of the local culture. Remember that you will be viewed as an outsider and possibly a threat to local jobs. Hire native individuals for local management and listen to their opinions.

One way to build rapport is to keep in mind the simple fact that everywhere in the world people all want the same thing. I have worked in almost 20 countries and experienced a set of universal values—everyone wants safety and security, a modicum of shelter, safe and adequate food supplies, sufficient healthcare, jobs, and education for their children. While one could argue the items on this list, the concept is nevertheless solid. Building your discussions and strategy around these universal elements will go a long way toward productive integration with the locals.

As you become closer to the people and culture in this new region, whether providing a service or product, or manufacturing in the area, observe and analyze the effect you and your organization will have on the people. Is there a possibility that you might affect the culture? If so, expect a backlash from a segment of the population and prepare in advance to handle it with great sensitivity and be proactive whenever possible.

Lastly, ensure you meet all local laws and regulations. Hire knowledgeable contractors to assist in planning for and navigating through the labyrinth of legal barriers.

Following these simple guidelines can mean the difference between success and failure in a new geographic region. Just remember the word “respect.” Respect all people, all the time wherever you are and they are likely to respect you back.


  • Understand and embrace local customs
  • Remain sensitive to the ramifications of you and your company’s presence and actions
  • Investigate pertinent regulations and laws

Keywords: leadership, culture, strategy

Share on Facebook

The Power of Collaboration

This past week I had the honor of working with 200 high school sophomores from all over the state of Kentucky. These bright, hard-working students were hand-picked by their high school teachers and administrators to take part in the state-level three-day Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership (HOBY) program.


The students were divided into 10-member groups and I had created an exercise which provided a unique role for each student. One student was the leader and the others had other specific roles on the team. We held two rounds of discussion which were facilitated by the leader.

In the first round, the leader was to have described the project and quash any discussion of broadening the project scope. In the second round of discussion the leader was told to take a more collaborative approach and explore new ideas with the team members.

During this second round the students revealed information regarding new features that could be included with little additional schedule risk or budget ramifications. They were able to work together more productively, came up with more creative solutions, and felt more satisfied in their roles. We then held a discussion with the entire group and talked about the differences between the two types of leadership style. When asked if they would have considered quitting their job during the first round had it been real life, several said that they would have quit.

These students experienced two powerful aspects of leadership firsthand—the significant influence a leader has over the process within the team and the power of working collaboratively.

Research has illustrated these factors as well. Fostering collaboration allows each team member to contribute their unique and valuable knowledge, skills, and abilities. Frequently, one individual will add to another’s contribution, thus developing something more than originally envisioned. Creative insights, such as these synergies are the innovations which fuel organization’s profits on a continuous basis.


  • Does your leadership promote a framework within which your team can actively and safely pursue creative ideas?
  • Do you bring individuals onto your team who have a diverse set of skills and knowledge?
  • Do you challenge your team to think beyond existing products, services, and paradigms?


  • Your leadership will shape the type of process your team will use
  • Collaboration is a powerful tool for high performing teams

Keywords: leadership, collaboration, Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership, HOBY


  • Amabile, T. M. (1998). How to kill creativity. Harvard Business Review, 76(5), 76-87.
  • Ansell, C., & Gash, A. (2008). Collaborative governance in theory and practice. Journal of public administration research and theory, 18(4), 543-571.
  • Bennis, W. G., & Biedermann, P. W. (1997). Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration. Perseus Books.
  • Chrislip, D. D., & Larson, C. E. (1994). Collaborative leadership: How citizens and civic leaders can make a difference. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Cohen, S. G., & Ledford, G. E., Jr. (1994). The Effectiveness of Self-Managing Teams: A Quasi-Experiment. Human Relations, 47(1), 13.
  • Deiglmayr, A., & Spada, H. (2010). Collaborative problem-solving with distributed information: The role of inferences from interdependent information. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 13(3), 361-378.
  • Rentsch, J. R., Delise, L. A., Salas, E., & Letsky, M. P. (2010). Facilitating Knowledge Building in Teams: Can a New Team Training Strategy Help? Small Group Research, 41(5), 505-523.
  • Schrage, M. (1995). No more teams!: Mastering the dynamics of creative collaboration. New York: Currency Doubleday.
  • Share on Facebook

SpaceX Checks its Ego at the Door

As I write this the SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies) Falcon 9 rocket has blasted into space, carrying the Dragon spacecraft toward the International Space Station (ISS) with a load of cargo. This milestone marks a new era in private as opposed to government space flight. While a significant portion of the program funding comes from NASA and therefore could be considered government funded, two important points would be missed if we apply such a broad brush.

Falcon 9 Launch May 22, 2012

As a leader our ego sometimes gets the better of us. We begin to believe that we and our team can deliver new products or services without the help of others. Such an attitude frequently ends in failure and a veritable crawl back to those who offered help in the first place.

The collaboration of SpaceX with NASA has been shown to provide tangible benefits in terms of development time and cost. While SpaceX has taken a fresh approach to rocket and spacecraft design they have hired and collaborated with NASA engineers to design and produce highly reliable and much lower cost equipment. This collaboration has created the best of two worlds—the fresh, pristine design team and the legacy team learning from the vast knowledge of successful and failed missions.

In order to make this collaboration work the SpaceX management and design team had to set their ego aside and embrace the NASA voice of wisdom. My work with clients has revealed many a time when individuals feel they can go it alone to achieve their goals. Sometimes this is successful, sometimes not. I find it helpful to strike a balance between receiving and utilizing sage advice versus allowing your team to become bogged down with too many opinions.

I believe the second lesson here is one of minimizing bureaucracy. In general, as organizations mature they continually learn from mistakes and implement a multiplicity of checks and balances. At some point the organization becomes overly cautious and new, more nimble competitors swoop in to take market share with clever innovations.

As you observe this taking place in your organization you have a couple of options: either allow the bureaucracy to slowly build and then destroy it and build anew or continually hack away at the bureaucracy and agree to take on a measured amount of risk.

So when you find yourself turning down offers of help ask yourself if your ego is popping up. Continually assess your processes to ensure you have not become too bureaucratic. After all, this is rocket science and you want to do the best you can.


  • Allow your ego to step aside and ask yourself where the help of others might improve your team’s performance
  • Take a fresh look, from the ground up, what business processes are absolutely necessary for your team to meet its goals

Keywords: leadership, ego, bureaucracy

Share on Facebook

The Collaborative Leadership of Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren

On January 20th U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren and incumbent Scott Brown signed a pledge intending to stop all PAC (Political Action Committee) spending on their campaigns. The pledge states that for every dollar a PAC spends on TV or Internet advertisement for them or against their opponent they will donate half that amount of money to a charity of the opponent’s choice.

I find this agreement a breath of fresh air, setting an example of political bipartisan leadership as well as collaborative leadership. This model should serve as an example for all politicians to follow. Collaboration is about building something together. It is about remaining open to new possibilities.

Collaborative leadership is both unifying and fluid. Think of an evolving organism, one that is highly dynamic as it adapts and wends its way toward its ever-changing goals. While this may seem amorphous, or even wishy-washy, it is the nature of the universe. Physicists speak of the dance when describing particle physics. Leadership and the nature of organizations is exactly the same.

Conversely, hardened positions such as signing a pledge for no new taxes (a la Taxpayer Protection Pledge) takes flexibility and adaptability off the table. Charles Darwin explained all too well for us what happens to species that are no longer able to adapt. Hardened ideological positions are fine for religions but are no way to stay ahead of the curve, whether leading a nation or a private organization.

It is difficult to lead collaboratively. It requires time, patience, and skill. All parties must be committed to the goal of creating something new and building trust. They must be willing to enter a meaningful dialog to come to an understanding of each other’s values and goals so that this new creation may emerge. Begin by building on small achievements together.

So ask yourself how well you’re working with other leaders and other teams…


• What behaviors do you exhibit which build trust?
• How do you engage others in meaningful dialog?
• How do you get peers to buy into your vision and goals?
• What process do you use to understand everyone’s values, beliefs, and goals?
• What process do you use to build a common vision?
• How do you build upon early accomplishments?
• Are you willing to invest the time to lead collaboratively?
• Are you willing to invest the time and energy to upgrade your leadership skills if necessary?

Keywords: collaborative leadership, trust, dialog, commitment


Ansell, C., & Gash, A. (2008). Collaborative governance in theory and practice. Journal of public administration research and theory, 18(4), 543-571.
Chrislip, D. D., & Larson, C. E. (1994). Collaborative leadership: How citizens and civic leaders can make a difference. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Mullen, C. A., & Kochan, F. K. (2000). Creating a collaborative leadership network: An organic view of change. International Journal of Leadership in Education, 3(3), 183-200.

Share on Facebook