A Case of Good Leadership: The Power of One
Pushing the work forward by engaging the group
While collaboration ideally features everyone working together, there is usually one “linchpin,” an essential leader. This leader needs to keep everyone motivated—by focusing on how best to achieve the compelling mission.
Olivia is Founder and Executive Director of a nonprofit organization focused on supporting public engagement with important civic issues. Her organization aims to find “common ground, [and to] move towards action and decisions” in addressing complex issues. When a Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government is released, she welcomes its call for government departments and agencies to exemplify three facets of “open” government – transparency, public participation, and collaboration.
Many of Olivia’s colleagues in the field share her excitement about changes in the national conversation that may take place as a result of this memorandum. A 10-member steering committee forms, convening representatives from as many organizations, to address “public participation.” Olivia looks forward to conferring with her counterparts; but she remains unsure of what to expect from a diverse group that may well envision ten different agendas and ten different courses of action. Can they in fact agree on a set of principles to engender productive public engagement in the civic sphere?
Olivia’s concerns might have been confirmed, had it not been for one key individual who guided the group through an open–but carefully crafted–process, both online and off. Sometimes, effective collaboration depends on the “power of one.”
How does this play out?
As Olivia recalls, the memorandum’s release spurred lively exchanges among individuals in the field, yet only three members of the steering committee “were really getting stuff done.” Time together was not “time well spent”—all chattered amiably but, only a few individuals took responsibility for particular tasks of the committee. The trio wondered whether the other committee members were really invested in the ultimate outcome.
Without any prompting, Zach, part of the gang of three, simply stepped up to help move the process along. He helped to create an online forum that sought to delineate individual principles of public participation. Contributors then commented on the examples—what they liked about them, and what they didn’t. Zach synthesized the most compelling and most consensual ideas and comments into an initial draft of principles to which everyone in the community could react. After a second round of feedback, Zach revised the principles yet again. “He kept doing…iteration after iteration…really promoting it so that many people were going in and playing around and adding comments,” remembers Olivia. Once a solid set of principles had emerged, Zach created another online platform for individuals to contribute edits and line-by-line comments to produce a penultimate version.
Zach encouraged all participants to feel ownership of the principles, a consensus that he hoped would ultimately lead to their public endorsement. Once the work of the steering committee had been completed, Zach emailed all of the major organizations in the field, asking for a representative to review the document. Many individuals responded positively. Ultimately, nearly 80 organizations endorsed the principles.
Olivia reflects on Zach’s leadership qualities: “You need a leader that has a lot of motivation and clear goals… someone who’s willing to push things forward, who has a way of motivating others…but at the same time they can’t be too overbearing. People have to see that decisions are being made collaboratively, that they’re part of the decision making process, so it’s a real balance.”
Zach found a way to engage key individuals across the country, and to maintain enthusiasm while allowing for constructive critique of each other’s work. Interestingly, these exchanges took place online, a process that may have made it easier for members to be candid about their views. Though Zach stayed focused on the task at hand, he also kept an eye on the overall target: creating an agreed set of principles for “public engagement” with regard to civic issues.