Collaborative leadership is a subject embraced by many but practiced by few. For some leaders, the subject finds them heading for the door! Collaboration can mean endless discussions with little direction. For others, collaboration is the flavor of the month, and they launch into collaborative leadership with little experience or training. No wonder people head for the exits when collaboration is mentioned.
Collaboration is not for everyone, nor is it for every circumstance. Collaboration best happens when a ministry or business challenge becomes so important, urgent, or complex that one person doesn’t have all the answers and current forms or resources appear inadequate. What’s needed is the ability to bring people together to break new ground. This is true collaborative leadership.
Let’s be clear that collaboration is different from coordination or cooperation. It’s more than sharing resources, coordinating schedules, or planning together. All of this happens in collaboration, but collaboration is much more.
Collaboration is like a blank piece of paper.
The complaint I hear from many who participate in collaborative settings is that the intention was good, but the outcomes seemed to be pre-determined. When we start with a blank piece of paper, we’re asking God to call “into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17, esv). We’re working together, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to create a new strategy, solution, or process. Collaboration is the ultimate act of faith that trusts God to fill in that blank piece of paper.
Collaboration can be defined as “the art of helping people work together to accomplish a commonly owned goal or vision in a way that promotes equal ownership and equal contribution.” Collaborative teams are targeted for a very specific need or challenge. They’re small in size—six to eight is usually the best number. Collaboration has a deadline; it’s not a lifetime appointment. When the new strategy, approach, or practice is implemented, the team dissolves.
I’ve found three qualities to be necessary for effective collaboration.
Collaboration is a team sport, so we must get the right people on the team. One of my “senior status” maxims is that life is too short to work with people with whom I have little chemistry. Relational conflict is a natural part of leadership, but I can make choices about the people I want to team up with in collaborative settings. I use three criteria to select people for my team.
I choose people of character or spiritual maturity over professional competency. In the pastoral epistles, I counted forty-four character qualities for church leaders. Only two competencies were mentioned. Now some of the character qualities overlap, but one thing is clear: character trumps competency!
Second, I want a variety of contributions. Collaborative teams have a diversity of gifting, experiences, and personalities. I don’t encourage pastoral teams to act as collaborative teams. Pastors, you need the fresh perspective that laypeople such as teachers, business people, or plumbers provide.
Finally, I want people with whom I have chemistry. Chemistry means that there’s a potential to enjoy working together. Life is too short to spend time endlessly arguing, resolving personality conflicts, or dealing with rampant egos. While these challenges can arise with the best of teams, we can minimize them by choosing people we have chemistry with.
Collaboration requires the “Great Surrender.” We make the Great Surrender when we wave the white flag, surrendering our personal agendas and preferences to collectively seek the Lord’s best. This white flag is epitomized by the blank sheet of paper—a page devoid of ideas, agendas, and timelines. Like Timothy with the apostle Paul, we seek not our interests but those of Jesus Christ (Philippians 2:21). For this to happen, two acts of prayer are required.
The first prayer is what author Ruth Haley Barton calls “the prayer for indifference.” In this prayer we ask God to work in our hearts to “make us indifferent to anything but the will of God.” The second prayer is a request for wisdom. The Lord invites us to ask Him for wisdom (James 1:5). We’re choosing to collaborate because the challenge is too big for one person. We’re forced to stand small in His presence, needing his guidance.
Collaborative leaders are very purposeful, even ruthless at times, about the process or strategy. But they’re hands-off on the outcomes. Our process or strategy starts with selecting the right people. Once selection is completed, we ask this group to make the Great Surrender, laying aside our agendas and outcomes. We then choose to focus, making the direction of our collaboration very clear. Author Keith Sawyer notes that “unclear objectives become the biggest barrier to effective team performance.”
Focus describes the problem or challenge we’re called to address. With a focus in place, we begin to explore solutions. Exploration takes into account the context or culture of the setting. It analyzes what is or is not working. Exploring creatively thinks about new and innovative approaches.
No good strategy is complete without a plan. My friend Brenda, a leadership coach, frequently comments that “until it’s on the calendar, it’s just another nice idea.” Schedules propel us to action. A good plan includes delegating to each team member’s strengths, setting realistic expectations, and providing clear deadlines with a system of accountability.
Collaboration is a rewarding experience when applied to the right situation with the right people and done in the right way. It is the ultimate act of faith where we’re trusting God to call into existence what doesn’t exist. Collaboration happens when we select a team, surrender our agendas to God, and follow a strategy to lead forward. Collaboration brings people together to break new ground.
Bill Mowry is a veteran staff member with The Navigators. He holds an MA in education with an emphasis on adult education from The Ohio State University. His writing, coaching, and teaching draws from diverse ministry experiences to leaders on the college campus, in the marketplace, in the medical community, and with church leaders. Bill is passionate about helping people fulfill the Great Commission in relational, intentional, thoughtful, and creative ways. Bill is the author of The Ways of the Alongsider (navpress.com) and Walk with Me (moodypublishers.com). You can learn more about Bill at alongsider.com.
Adapted from The Ways of the Leader: Four Practices to Bring People Together and Break New Ground by Bill Mowry. Copyright © 2023. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries.