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Non-profit Ecology: 8 Lessons in Collaborative Leadership

February 6, 2012
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Back in October 2011, the NFF held its seventh Collaboration & Capacity-Building Workshop in Lyons, Colorado. One of the sessions focused on collaborative leadership, and we asked several collaborative leaders (who also happen to be leaders of collaboratives!) to talk about the leadership structures of their groups and to share any advice and lessons they’ve learned over the years. Here is a synopsis of Annie Schmidt’s lessons. We’re sure you’ll recognize the wisdom of her words, as well as get a chuckle from her creative metaphors.

Non-profit Ecology: 8 Lessons in Collaborative Leadership

 Ecology is the study of the relationships of organisms to each other and to their environment.  And what is more about relationships than collaborative non-profits?  The fact that we all work in the natural resource field only makes the comparison of our non-profit ecosystem to the natural one more apt.  So, in the spirit of non-profit ecology*, here are eight lessons the natural world can teach us about leadership.

  1.   Hierarchy doesn’t equal leadership.  Just because you are the oldest wolf (or the E.D) in the pack, it doesn’t make you the automatic leader.  Respect your team and they will respect you.  Remember, leadership is something you can improve.
  2. Old wolves have seen more scat than you have – so pay attention when they try to tell you something.
  3. Fly in a V – common goals and shared vision matter.  Birds flying in a V-formation can go further together than they can go alone.  They are a team, headed in the same direction and they leave and arrive together.  The birds support each other and so should your team.  As the guy in front tires, another takes his or her place.
  4. Every bird counts – value your team.  Every bird (or Board Member) should know they matter to the destination, because they do.
  5. Succession is important.  No organization should be one charismatic leader away from failure.  Each bird in the V steps up when needed.  Every bird is prepared to contribute to the mission.
  6. Don’t get too far out front or the pack will turn on you.  Sometimes, change is slow… and you can only go as fast as the slowest member of your team.
  7. Employ tenacious creativity (phrase from Leading at the Edge – Leadership lessons from the Extraordinary saga of Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition).  What creature is more tenaciously creative than ants?  Those can find their way into anything and then COMMUNICATE that information CLEARLY to others.  Be industrious, be tenacious, and be creative.  Be an ant.
  8. Feed your pack – both literally and figuratively.  Starving animals are a little unpredictable.  In a literal sense, provide food at meetings because there is something calming and bonding about sharing a bite to eat.  Figuratively, think about the ants and birds.  Ants form those industrious little trails searching for food.  Birds band together to migrate to where they will have better food and shelter.  Both species are seeking nourishment and, in a more general sense, survival.  Your team members are seeking nourishment too – that is why they volunteer.  It may be personal satisfaction, it may be sense of accomplishment, real change on the ground, or something entirely different – their reasons will differ.  But you, as a leader, can figure out what they are seeking (ask them!) and provide it.  Show the Board the impact of their actions.  Feed them, because if you don’t – they will find an organization that will.  Or they will eat you.

* “Non-profit ecology” is a completely made-up term designed to provide a cool (or at least intellectual-sounding) framework for the ramblings of the author, Annie Schmidt, Director of the Chumstick Wildfire Stewardship Coalition.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike permalink
    February 7, 2012 10:44 am

    These are great principles to keep in mind. The answer the “What” question (i.e. What principles are involved in collaborative leadership?) The next question is “How” (i.e. How do leaders put these into action? Are there particular social competencies that collaborative leaders develop over time? How do these leaders develop these capacities?). Is there an on-going forum that speaks this question? Thanks Karen and NFF for your continuing work in the area!

  2. February 23, 2012 11:51 am

    The good work of Mary Mitsos and Kathleen Dowd-Galey on “the care and feeding of collaborative work” is inspiring. Working with Mary in the Carpe Diem West Alliance and with Kathleen on watershed restoration collaboratives is a great pleasure. Wish I had a million dollars to donate to NFF. You all deserve it.

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