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Why Collaboration Is Greater Than Leadership

Updated: Dec 7, 2019

A cold hush fell over the room. It was one of those feelings comparable to getting knocked from the shoulder tops of your chicken-playing teammate into a deep, cool summer pool replete with a big, fat splash–sucking the air right out of your lungs. No one dared offer a rebuttal.

“We must never take it personally that an idea is passed over. Not every creative suggestion offered can be implemented, and I firmly believe that our top executives have made the right decision,” one leader spoke in defense of another senior member of the team. “To take offense,” he continued, conveniently looking toward the person whose cost-effective, creative idea had been passed over, “To complain…to speak out…would be disloyal, and we must each be ready to work together for a fully united cause.”

The words weren’t all bad, but every one of us knew what message was being clearly iterated. “Come to the table with your ideas, and we might humor you now and again. But this is a formality. We know best, and to question is to not be a team-player. Thinking critically will be viewed as being critical.”

That’s one work environment.

Ever been there?

A leader was in place. In fact, a team of leaders was faithfully assigned to each sector of the organization, and yet employees would come and go like a revolving door.

I once worked at an international school. There was a revolving door of employees and students alike because there’s a transiency about ex-pat life that isn’t quite like anything else. But that work environment also taught me quite a bit about this concept of leadership.

Pushing a few tables together after the start of another week of school, we all looked forward to swapping stories, sharing snacks, and ideating for an hour and a half or so. Our principal would announce or discuss a few key items, and our librarian would always bring a fresh treat from the market.

It was October. Our favorite month at the school because it was the time of year when we would stop regular classes for a full day, and spend hours upon hours of class time throughout the month preparing for our beloved International Day. Each room would barely be recognizable as decorations would take on the face of an entire country represented within our student body.

“We should build a gondola in the classroom,” one teacher laughed. “Think about it. I can have them come in and sit in the gondola–a few kids at a time–while we talk about Italian history.”

“Can you build it?” the principal asked.

“Sure, if it’s cardboard.” We all laughed as we encouraged him to do it, as long as he was sure to add an “ini” to his name in homage.

“Mr. Foxini it is!” he smiled.

“What if I do a windmill?” Another teacher who had Dutch students voiced her thoughts. I mean, what else would you do for Holland? Everyone thought it was perfect and we soon decided that the kids could make paper tulips and paint mini clogs.

The classroom to represent our Turkish students could be draped in fabrics of every kind. We’d have storytelling under a colorful tent, and children would learn about the progression of imperialism as they would weave multi-colored strings together.

“Sound’s great.”

Israel would be a place of tradition and light. Kids would learn about the cultural significance of light and peace as they entered a space of quiet reflection.

“Do it.”

With every response from our principal, each teacher gained confidence and our conversation continued with idea after idea, laying the foundation for one of the most exciting days of our year.

The October must–pronounced moost–fresh, unfermented wine–had possibly taken on a little fermentation, and the meeting was boisterous, playful, and relaxed.

Lastly, we decided that we would teach the kids a dance from each culture. Someone began to perform the Macarena arguing that it was an acceptable representation of any culture, and soon the meeting came to an end with a unanimous vote that we would always send someone to the market for must before our monthly meetings.

Just another example of a work environment.

Sometimes our cross-culture discussions were heated and misunderstood, sometimes we had tension to deal with or a budding relationship to nurture. But always–ALWAYS–someone would take the reins and make what we were doing actually work. And here’s a hint, it often wasn’t the guy or girl in “official” charge.

So all this has made me think a lot about what definitions we give to leadership, given my current situation as a team of one.

Have you ever read books on leadership? Taken a course? Paid a coach? Whether you’re like me, a creative trying to grow a business, a serial entrepreneur, or an employee on any kind of team, chances are you’ve done at least one of those things.

Perhaps you have experienced many types of team dynamics as well.

But here’s the thing. No matter the setting, the only person I’ve ever truly been able to lead is myself.

If you’ve explored leadership, chances are you follow John Maxwell. If you don’t, you should, because he’s literally written textbook laws on the subject. He’s devoted his life to the study of this thing we label as leadership.

And maybe that term is morphing into influencer in our current vernacular. Time will tell. But even his irrefutable laws shared with us in the 90s, have become delineated book after book into essential truths like Developing The Leader Within You and

See the common factor?

It’s you.

Don’t get me wrong. I recognize the advantage of structure. We’re all drawn to the concept of following someone’s lead. But the healthiest working environment I’ve ever been part of is not when everyone is catering to the whims of a titled leader (Maxwell's books all teach this, btw) but when the guy or gal with their name on the door is empowering good ideas regardless of the source.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe collaboration isn’t greater than leadership.

Perhaps collaboration equals real leadership. Because sharing in community is when the movement really begins to happen.

I’m even talking to my favorite peeps–entrepreneurs. We like to get things done ourselves, figure stuff out, and go it alone. But we can’t have all the ideas. And the magic only shows up when we’re willing to let ideas lead instead of people. Because, that way, everyone wins.

So, here’s the little moral to my stories, I guess.

If you’re not in an environment of collaborative creativity, put yourself out there, and seek what you crave. These environments exist, trust me. If you can't find it, create it. You'll be the one they're calling leader or influencer soon.

If you’re the titled leader who doesn’t ever let someone take the lead–and I don’t mean MC the company meeting–I mean take the lead on ideation for your next gig, please trust the ethereal notion of ideation. Listen to your team bounce their concepts off of each other the next time you have a project to do. And let them build the frickin gondola.

FYI: The monorail at Disney exists because an automobile designer went into a meeting with Walt Disney accompanied by a rough drawing of a railcar based on Buck Roger’s spaceship. Disney simply asked, “Can you build it?” And his employee’s response was, “Yeah.” End of meeting.

You might be surprised by what people will collaborate to do on your team if you let them ideate freely.

And if you’re a team of one, but you’re not in a mastermind, get in one. Even if you have to pay. But if you can’t afford it, start your own. I don’t believe in having to charge a fee for masterminds for it to be legit. Just do your thing. Dream along with others. Let ideas take a driver’s seat and the answers about your niche and income will show up. You’ll be doing business in ways you’ve never thought possible soon.

Because it’s not business, it’s personal. And we all need each other.

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