Thursday, March 29, 2012

Our Better Angels

Steven Pinker’s recently published and really big book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, has attracted substantial attention from scholars and general audiences alike. Pinker has been one of our most influential thinkers for twenty years or so, and this book is not only startling in its wide-ranging research and rich insights, it’s also fun to read.

In Better Angels, Pinker argues very persuasively that the human species has become dramatically less violent over the millennia, and even over the last few decades. This argument may seem counterintuitive because we seem to be bombarded constantly by news of horrific violence just about everywhere just about every day. But that is actually part of Pinker’s point: violence nowadays is in fact newsworthy, not just an everyday run-of-the-mill feature of life on earth. To bolster that point, Pinker starts his analysis with a sickening parade of anecdotes about the savagery of life in human groups and communities before large-scale civilizing institutions like governments and commercial arrangements wrote new scripts for the human drama.

Pinker’s analysis is so useful to our understanding of collaborative leadership that I intend to cover it in my next four blogs on Leading Together. Each of those blogs will cover one of the following topics from The Better Angels of Our Nature: six trends, five inner demons, four better angels, and five historical forces. Those are the topics that animate Pinker’s arguments. If you want to understand those arguments better, I suggest that you buy the book or borrow it from your public library. Then you can compare your own reading to my summaries and interpretations in my next four blogs. In either case, happy reading.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Working Together in the Desert

For 32 years now, I’ve been conducting a decision-making game with my Ripon College students and with various mid-career groups. The game challenges participants to decide on the relative usefulness of fifteen items for survival in the desert after a plane crash. Participants first rank the items on their own and then rank them again in groups of six to eight. They then compare their own lists and their group’s list with the rankings of the military survival experts who concocted the game in the first place.

The game is supposed to demonstrate the advantages of group decision-making over individual decision-making in a situation like this. I have probably facilitated this game with more than 3,000 people since 1980, and every single time I have done it the group scores have been higher than the individual scores somewhere between 65% and 80% of the time. Every time I did it, I told the participants that someday the individuals would do better than the groups, but that never happened. Until last week in my introductory course, Leadership and the Human Spirit.

After trying unsuccessfully to figure out why this happened, I chalked it up to the law of averages and accepted the fact that it was bound to happen sooner or later.

Though the scores were out of kilter this time, the students and I were able to identify the reasons why groups normally do better than individuals on this game and why, in a minority of cases, individuals do better than the group. It helps to start with the observation that the decisions in this game are all about common everyday items and thus do not require complex knowledge of high-tech stuff. Everybody has some idea of what the items on the list can do but most people have never thought about them in a context like this.

At any rate, the explanations are apt for our Leading Together blog, so here goes.

The first reason why groups normally do better than individuals is that two heads are indeed better than one, and six or eight heads are better than two. More viewpoints mean more ideas.

The second reason is that people in isolation are unable to appreciate their own mistakes; but if someone else is present then mistakes become easier to detect. Group decision-making can weed out mistakes as well as contribute more ideas.

The third reason is that the process of communication is creative and tends to transform original ideas into better ideas as people express themselves, reflect on other people’s ideas, and consider new alternatives. Ideas piggyback on other ideas. Communication is not just a process of expressing what we know we know; it is often a process of finding out what we can learn.

And why do groups not always make better decisions than individuals? Well, they all have something to do with the non-rational and social influences on our decisions. When members of a group are unclear about the rational or logical reasons for a decision, they look to other cues.

If, for example, someone in the group speaks up quickly and confidently, as we expect leaders to do, we assume they know what they are talking about – unless, of course, we know they are wrong. In that case, we may be reluctant to follow their lead the next time.

The other two reasons are polar opposites of the same proposition. If we have or would like to have a positive relationship with someone in the group who advocates a particular position, we are likely to side with that person if we are unsure of any better reason. And if we just can’t stand someone in the group, we are likely to seek other options rather than agree with them. It may not matter if those other options make little sense as long as they satisfy our desire to avoid being on the same side of the fence as the person we just don’t like.

This is not to suggest that emotional factors and personal relationships are inherently bad; they are in fact extremely important within any group and they contribute to the commitment of members to try out and stick with the group’s decisions. And in fact, the best decisions are sometimes the ones we feel committed to whether they are rationally and objectively better than other decisions.

The classic example of that is a marriage. There is no way to verify that one’s spouse is literally the best choice in the world, but a strong commitment to the relationship from both partners can make for a happy and durable marriage.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Training for Collaborative Leadership

The Wisconsin Leadership Institute (WLI) will host a five-day training institute at the Cenacle Retreat and Conference Center in Chicago June 25-29, 2012. The “Leading Together Institute” will be based on the curriculum developed by the WLI and published in Leading Together: Foundations of Collaborative Leadership. It will aim to prepare K-12 teachers; school administrator; experiential facilitators; college students, faculty, and staff involved in collaborative leadership; and others who use experiential education in their professional lives to implement practices and exercises provided in the curriculum.

During the five days, participants will engage in the process, reflect upon their experience, and dialogue with each other to gain meaning and understanding. Completion of the institute will entitle participants to train other educators to use the curriculum to its fullest extent. By the end of the institute, participants will apply their learning by co-facilitating parts of the curriculum, offering feedback to one another, and creating a personal action plan. For an additional fee, graduate credit will also be available to those who complete the institute.

For more information about the Leading Together Institute, please contact Laurie Frank at 608-251-2234 or email her at

Saturday, August 20, 2011


What makes a Superleader? Several years ago, Warren Bennis, one of the most influential and prolific students of leadership ever, set out to determine what makes a superleader by interviewing 90 top corporate executives, university presidents, public officials, publishers, and winning coaches. His investigation turned up five major qualities.

The first is vision – the capacity to create a clear picture of a goal which inspires people to perform.

The second is communication – the ability to portray the vision in a way that enlists the support of followers.

The third is persistence – the ability to stay the course regardless of obstacles.

The fourth quality Bennis calls “empowerment” – the ability to create a structure that harnesses the energies of others to achieve the desired result.

The fifth is organizational ability – the capacity to measure the performance of a group, to learn from mistakes, and to use the resulting knowledge to enhance effectiveness.

Bennis also found that the most effective leaders did not pay much attention to fads in management theory or get-rich-quick schemes. They were all simply devoted to a vision of excellence and achievement and all very good at transmitting that vision to followers. Finally, Bennis’s superleaders all had a healthy disregard for risk; in other words, they consistently demonstrated courage without flirting with disaster. They put very little energy into protecting themselves against failure and most of their energy into making their visions real.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Next Generation Calls for Collaboration

The Next Generation (NGen) project, funded by American Express and convened by Independent Sector, recently released a report on the major concerns of the 2009-2010 class of NGen Fellows, all aspiring leaders under the age of 40.

In essence, the report concluded that professionals under 40 feel that collaboration across sectors is necessary to solve society’s problems and agree on the most important issues to address, but don't know how to connect with people in other sectors working to solve these problems.

The top issues facing communities, the nation, and the world, they concur, are education, poverty, health, and the environment. Unfortunately, however, NGen Fellows had great difficulty identifying any of their peers who were currently effective at solving those significant social problems. Of the Fellows polled, 1,300 skipped this question altogether, and of the 1,000 who did answer it, the top vote getters were Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google, who received just ten and eight votes respectively.

Finally, the Fellows believe that the nonprofit sector is best positioned to take the lead in engaging other sectors (government and for-profit business) to solve comprehensive social problems. They also believe that they need more leadership development, especially for the challenges of collaborating across the sectors.

The report goes on to recommend expanding the traditional definition of a “leader” and to stress the need for collaboration to reach out, find common ground, and build bridges.

Want to know more? Check out the summary yourself at

Sunday, July 17, 2011

To Collaborate or Not?

Here on “Leading Together,” we consistently promote the benefits of cooperation and collaboration over competition and inflexibility.

There are, of course, times when competition is not only appropriate but even necessary, and times when staunch commitment to principle is not only valid but even critical. Virtually all historians and social scientists would agree, however, that citizens of the United States inhabit the most individualistic and most competitive culture in the world, and possibly in the history of the world. In that context, we more often need reminders about the advantages of cooperation, collaboration, and willingness to compromise.

These issues are certainly prominent in the current debate about our national debt and the advisability of raising the debt ceiling to pay the bills we have already incurred. A national poll conducted last week, for example, asked respondents from both of the major political parties to state their preference for compromise in relation to their preference for “sticking to our guns.” It seems that one party is significantly more willing to compromise than the other, and the other is much more committed to “sticking to our guns” regardless of the issue or the problem.

The results indicated – at least as of last week – that one party favored compromise over “sticking to our guns” by 68% to 32%. The other party, meanwhile, favored “sticking to our guns” by 66% to 34%. Taken altogether, the poll’s participants favored cooperation by 53% to 47%. (Since we try to avoid partisan posturing here at “Leading Together,” you will have to figure out for yourself which party is which.)

The poll made no reference to any particular issue or any particular reasons for choosing one strategy over the other. Thus the difference between the two parties in this respect may lie deeper than any issue or any rationale for decision. In turn, the results of this poll may provide no clues to what we should be doing about any of the challenges we face, but it does seem to provide a clue to why we have so much trouble reaching any agreements at all.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Zero-Sum Games

As I prepare this blog for publication, the President of the United States and several House and Senate leaders from both parties are trying to hammer out a deal whereby our nation can avoid defaulting on its debts. According to the most reliable economists and historians, an actual default would be catastrophic in several ways; they also tell us that there is no credible reason for us to be in such a precarious position in the first place. But we are.

The underlying causes for the impasse, it seems, are more about the kind of political games that are being played than any rational insights about spending cuts and taxation. The two sides – that is, the two political parties – are playing a zero-sum game, which means that one party will win and the other will lose. Just as in every sporting event ever played in the history of sport, the number of all the wins is exactly the same as the number of all the losses – hence the zero sum.

A non-zero-sum game, by contrast, leads to a positive outcome for both sides, or what we sometimes call a win-win outcome. Win-win outcomes also benefit people who aren't even playing the game but who are influenced by its outcome. People who study human effectiveness know that we can almost always achieve win-win outcomes as long as nobody is driven by non-rational ideologies or dysfunctional emotions like unjustified fear and anger. (Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, lists “think win-win” as habit number 4.)

In the budget and deficit tangle now engulfing our national politics, it is becoming more and more evident that the larger good of the whole nation seems less important to some of our leaders than the narrow interests of some portions of the nation and certainly less important than victory over the other political party. Some of the beliefs driving the participants are in fact based on no rational evidence; they are really just ideological creeds. And a creed with no rational evidence behind it is really nothing more than an intellectual addition – what I like to call an ideaddiction. More than 30 years ago, John Gardner, one of the most insightful observers of our national life, called this kind of thing “the war of the parts against the whole.”

Non-zero-sum games are what most of us play most of the time. Education is a non-zero-sum game because everyone benefits from an educated population. Business is as well, since a successful business satisfies the needs of customers and clients and supports suppliers and the general community. Businesses cannot endure if they only satisfy their own desires; the function of any business is to provide goods and services for others. (It’s also true, of course, that businesses compete against each other in zero-sum kinds of ways.)

The fact is that groups, cultures, and nations can only survive, let alone flourish, if they play enough non-zero-sum games to create lots of win-win situations. The kind of extremist competition we are now witnessing in our political culture is ultimately destructive every which way, and if there is no progress from the talks going on in Washington right now, the destructive results will start to show up real soon.

Collaborative leadership, of course, attempts to play exclusively non-zero-sum games that lead only to win-win outcomes. Such leadership downplays or skirts the compulsion to compete and to perceive people with different ideas as dangerous or misguided. Leading together takes patience, empathy, and wisdom. That’s why it usually takes a long time to show results. But when results start to show up, they are virtually always durable and satisfying. When people are all in the same boat, it is always better to work together than to fight each other. And in this global community we now inhabit, we are all in the same boat just about all the time.