Over the past two weeks, President Barack Obama and Republicans in Congress have taken their conflicts to another level. I’m not here to apportion blame, but it would be nice if, in the future, we evaluated presidential candidates on the basis of whether they are skilled at the art of collaboration.
When you look at other sectors of society, you see leaders who are geniuses at this. You can spot the collaborative leader because he’s rejected the heroic, solitary model of leadership. He doesn’t try to dominate his organization as its all-seeing visionary, leading idea generator and controlling intelligence.
Instead, he sees himself as a stage setter, as a person who makes it possible for the creativity in his organization to play itself out. The collaborative leader lessens the power distance between himself and everybody else. He believes that problems are too complex for one brain, but if he can create the right context and nudge a group process along, the team will come up with solutions.
Collaborative political leaders would look very different than the ones we’re used to. In the first place, they would do what they could to create a culture of cooperation, not competition. They’d evoke our shared national consciousness more than our partisan consciousness. They’d take the political people out of the policy meetings. Except in high campaign season, they’d reduce the moronically partisan tit-for-tat, which is the pointless fare of daily press briefings.
Second, a collaborative president would draw up what Jeffrey Walker, vice chairman of the MDG Health Alliance and co-author of “The Generosity Network,” calls Key Influencer Maps. This leader would acknowledge that we live in a system in which a proliferating number of groups have veto power over legislation. He would gather influencers into informal policymaking teams as each initiative was executed.
Third, a collaborative president would offer specific goals to each team, but he would not come up with clear visions. He might say the goal of the education team, say, was to reduce high school dropouts by 10 percent. But he would not tell the team how to get there.
Fourth, a collaborative president would see herself as an honest broker above policymaking process, not as a gladiator in it. In an essay posted on LinkedIn, Walker argues that collaborative organizations usually need a person at the top who “is widely trusted and capable of rallying the interested parties behind the unified effort.” To be an honest broker, a collaborative president would have to repress some of her own ideas in order to serve as referee, guide and nudge for the people she gathered.
Fifth, a collaborative president would tolerate mess. She would acknowledge that if you don’t give midlevel people the freedom to roam, you won’t attract creative people to those jobs. If you adopt a highly prescriptive set of workplace rules, then nobody can do anything bold.
So what if there are leaks to the press, and the policy process becomes semipublic? That’s a price worth paying in order to harvest diverse viewpoints and the fruits of creative disagreements.
Sixth, a collaborative leader embraces an oppositional mindset. As Linda A. Hill and others argue in a Harvard Business Review essay called “Collective Genius,” successful collaborative groups resist tepid compromises; instead, they combine things that were once seen as mutually exclusive. A collaborative president might jam a mostly Democratic idea, federally financed preschool, and a mostly Republican idea, charter schools, into one proposal.
Seventh, a collaborative president would create a culture in which relationships are more important than one person’s touchy pride. There are going to be people who take cheap shots. The collaborative leader would swallow indignation and be tolerant of error in order to preserve relationships. She would have a merciful sense that every successful working bond is going to require moments of forgiveness.
The collaborative leader is willing to be vulnerable. Trust is built when one person is vulnerable to another and the other person doesn’t take advantage of it. Then that person is vulnerable back and the favor is returned. The collaborative leader understands the paradox; you have to take off the armor to build strong bonds.
Finally, the collaborative leader would exile those who consistently refuse to play by the rules. Psychologist David Rand of Yale finds that cooperation exists when people internalize small cooperative habits as their default response to situations. It only takes a few selfish and solitary grandstanders to undermine a culture of trust. Successful leaders have the guts to marginalize radicals and nihilists who refuse to play by the rules of the institution (this would be helpful to leaders on Capitol Hill).
We can all think of technocratic reforms to make Washington work better. But, ultimately, it takes a different leadership model and a renewed appreciation for the art of collaboration.