26 May 2016 19:19 IST

Out with the solitary, in with collaborator

Irrespective of industry, collaboration is the new mantra for being a successful leader

When Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, his name was set down in history books as the sole inventor of the telephone. When Jake Zien put his idea for Pivot Power (an electrical extension with adjustable sockets) on the community website Quirky and 709 people collaborated to bring it to market.

And it is the second parallel that is being played out in today’s leadership scenarios across organisations.

No solitary glory

Leaders leading from the front in a blaze of solitary glory are today being replaced by leaders who know how to get people and teams to work together for the good of the organisation and its goals. The old command-and-control approach is giving way to connect-and-collaborate.

So why does this matter? And what has changed, that makes the collaborative leader a must?

Before we begin explaining, let’s listen in on Samuel J Palmisano, the former IBM Chairman and Chief Executive Officer speaking to his leadership team in 2011 on ‘Thoughts on the Future of Leadership’.

“Clearly, one fundamental force of our age is the reality of global integration. I use this term intentionally. We tend to hear the “global” part of that. And we get very excited about the enormous growth opportunities in the so-called developing world… But perhaps, in our excitement, we overlook the “integration” part of global integration.

“To state the obvious, we have never been more interconnected — economically, socially and technologically. Our world has become a global system of systems. And that’s different from being an assemblage of markets or nations or industries. We have global systems of transportation, of energy, of communications, of finance, of food and water, of commerce, of security and more. This new reality requires new policies, approaches and organisational forms — regardless of your size or location.”

Fundamental shift

Samuel J Palmisano isn’t talking about a minor tweak in leadership style — he’s talking about a fundamental shift in mindset and attitude. Through much of our education system, we are conditioned to compete. We learn to look out mainly for ourselves, promote ourselves and ring-fence valued information.

While these are not necessarily bad traits in all contexts, they often come at the cost of developing a collaborative leadership style. And that can have bad consequences, as we transition to a world@work that prizes the collaborative approach.

The GE jet engine is put together across 22 countries; cross-border mergers and acquisitions are no longer a rarity; most Bollywood and other regional language films now boast of global team members who play important roles in raising the movie experience — Life in a Day, released in 2010, became one of the world’s first crowd-sourced movies, put together from over 4,500 hours of footage, from 80,000 individual clips that came in from 190 countries; our own Tata Nano is laden with parts from 12 German suppliers. In short, irrespective of industry, collaboration is the new mantra for the successful leader.

How to train the dragon

So how can you train yourself to be collaborative leaders?

~ Making connections and building networks

Learn to see and seek connections. Train yourself to look for patterns, for complementary strengths, and talents that can match the needs. This is usually practiced this in case-study projects, in college fests, in placement interviews and sports. We avoid the temptation of going solo and look for partners who can both challenge and help us grow.

~ Appreciate and encourage diversity

Collaborative leaders actively build diverse teams. They don’t seek to build an army of clones. They understand that people from different backgrounds, with distinct experiences and other points of view, strengthen the synergies that are possible. So learn to work not just with the classmates or colleagues you are comfortable with, but also with those you aren’t. Learn to look at things from a different point of view.

~ Making others successful

Practice making others successful — share information that can help a classmate shine; train yourself to be ‘givers’. Yes, it may seem counter-intuitive, but givers end up as gainers. People seek them out, value their inputs and often, when it counts, are repaid with goodness.

Kahlil Gibran, when writing about marriage, gave an interesting analogy. He said if a husband and wife are like islands in the sea, it would be a mistake to think of marriage as two islands merging and becoming one. Rather, the two islands remain distinct and unique but washed by the common waters of love. So too the collaborative leader gives people space, sets out a shared vision, articulates common goals and unfolds the magic that collaboration creates.

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