I recently had the chance to help the volunteers supporting the Summit Food Policy Coalition explore what it takes to create sustained positive change within the complex local food system. As we explored the challenge of moving from the all-too-common world of coblaboration (where stakeholders just talk about, rather than catalyze, change) to cross-sector civic collaboration, Beth Vild, a community organizer and local food advocate, made the simple but elegant observation that collaboration is about exercising power with others rather than exercising power over others.
Beth's insight came as I'm reading The End of Power by Moises Naim, a fascinating examination of how global trends are making it harder for large institutions in government, business, religion, philanthropy and other sectors to retain power, and why smaller "micro powers" that are emerging as a result of those same trends also struggle with the rapid erosion of their power.
One of Naim's observations is that as power decays, so do the structures and organizations that help organize our communities (think Congress). Some may see this decay of power as a boon to collaboration. But this decay not only hurts an organization's ability to exercise power over others, it also limits their ability to collaborate (exercise power with others). Effective cross-sector collaboration is demanding work and organizations suffering decline struggle to allocate resources to collaborative efforts.
The antidote to the decay of power is leadership. While we often associate leadership and power, we need to separate these two concepts if we are to achieve change. Some of the most effective collaborative leaders lack any positional power and authority. They acknowledge this reality and instead take actions that build sufficient trust among diverse stakeholders so that they assume shared responsibility for achieving a common goal.
Collaborative leadership builds power. The power to achieve change with others.