In 2015, Ralph Stayer stepped down as CEO of Wisconsin-based Johnsonville Sausage, a position he held for 47 years. He expanded the butcher shop his father gave him into a $1.5 billion dollar global business and the largest sausage brand in the U.S. What is more interesting is how he transformed himself as the leader of this business in a way that enabled it to grow — through a collaborative leadership journey. Beginning in the 1970s, Stayer may be one of the first business leaders to openly explore what it would take for him to transform himself from a command-and-control leader to a truly collaborative one — and then go ahead and do it. He captures this journey in his 1990 Harvard Business Review classic article, “How I Learned to Let My Workers Lead,” which helps us understand the challenges and triumphs of the journey.
This journey is not for the faint of heart and is not for everybody. But if you see the market, technological and demographic realities of our digital age, this journey can help prepare you to lead in the remainder of the 21st century. What is this journey and why should anyone go on it?
Defining the collaborative leadership journey
When Steven Covey published “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” we were introduced to the idea of an “inside-out” journey to discover our character and the values and principles that shape our leadership. That is where the collaborative leadership journey begins.
It is defined as an inside-out journey of self-discovery, self-awareness and reflection that helps you define who you are as a human being and a professional, what you believe in, what you value, why you are here on this planet and where you choose to go with the rest of your life. It is about your self-esteem, sense of self-worth and the ground you stand on. It is a journey with no destination, but it is about lifelong learning, growth and development
There are five key dimensions of the journey essential for its success:
- Self-discovery: understanding who we are, our assumptions, beliefs, values, leadership style and code of ethics.
- Self-awareness: knowing the impact of our style and behavior on others.
- Reflection: reflecting on how we react or respond to others based on our values and beliefs.
- Being grounded: getting and remaining grounded in the face of all the change.
- Conscious choices: making conscious choices to empower ourselves so that we can empower others.
Is the view worth the climb?
Why should any leader want to go on this journey? The short answer is that the realities of the 21st century digital age require a new type of leadership. Covid-19, the economic collapse, systemic racism, climate change and the rise of the millennial workforce are all screaming for a new way to lead — collaboratively. Twentieth century industrial age hierarchy is simply out of step with the times. Additionally, there are at least five benefits from doing this work:
- Self-esteem and self-confidence: The journey increases self-awareness and reinforces our self-esteem.
- Empathy: Because of increased self-awareness, there is increased empathy toward others.
- Clarity of direction: Your personal vision and mission are clarified, as well as the plan to realize them.
- Humility: There is a sense of calm and mindfulness, which in turn leads to humility that can empower others.
- Personal mastery: You are able to achieve the highest level of competence in collaborative leadership attributes, behaviors and roles.
Challenges to becoming a collaborative leader
Like every journey we take in life, you will experience roadblocks, barriers or unforeseen challenges along the way. Here are a few you may encounter:
- Personal history — from reaction to proaction: Where we come from and the forces that shaped who we are can cause us to be reactive, when the goal is to become proactive.
- Shifting mindsets — from power to collaboration: The shift from hierarchical thinking and the need for power is difficult. This involves letting go of old beliefs about leadership as you shift toward collaboration.
- Ego and arrogance — from self to selfless: While ego strength is essential for success, it can get in the way of building trust-based relationships. Collaboration requires us to be humble, selfless and facilitative of others. It’s about we, not me.
- Power — from control to ownership: Leaders don’t have any control, only influence. To motivate the workforce and gain influence, giving up the need for control and learning how to build ownership is a significant challenge.
- Motivation — from fear to trust: Hierarchical leaders motivate through fear. Collaborative leaders motivate by building trust. Making this shift is critical but difficult.
7 steps in the collaborative leadership journey
This is a journey, not a destination. Here are seven steps you can take on your journey to becoming a collaborative leader.
Step 1: Make a conscious choice to begin the journey with eyes wide open. Be willing to look in the mirror and make the necessary changes
Step 2: Benchmark your leadership style; get 360-degree feedback. Do a skills assessment and identify where do you need to work to become more collaborative.
Step 3: Explore your personal history to see how your upbringing shaped your life and view of leadership. Understand what drives, motivates and inspires you.
Step 4: Discover the unique gifts you bring to the workplace — special talents, skills or passions — that you can give to others.
Step 5: Identify your core values, ethics and moral compass that guide your leadership, and how you live by them.
Step 6: Define your purpose. Ask yourself, “Why am I here on this planet? What is it I am supposed to do while I’m here?”
Step 7: Develop your personal mission and vision statement, and clarify the legacy you want to leave behind.
When you build a house, you need a solid foundation that can withstand extreme weather events. If you use the wrong kind of cement or do not prepare the foundation properly, the pressures of external events will cause it to crack. The same is true for your leadership. The collaborative leadership journey is designed to help you create a solid foundation so that you empower yourself and others and can withstand the turbulence that is all around us. By the end of your journey, you will have become the best version of yourself, the collaborative leader, who, in the words of Lao Tzu, 6th century BCE leader, “… is best when people barely know he/she exists, when his/her work is done, his/her aim fulfilled, they will say: We did it ourselves.”
This article is based on the author’s book, “Leadership’s 4th Evolution: Collaboration for the 21st Century.”