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Collaborative Leadership in Charlotte

by Jeanette Sims

January 9,2010

I came to Charlotte in 1995 to take a job with what was then First Union. Our community was going through tremendous growth, often credited to the recognized business leaders in the community, including Hugh McColl of NationsBank, Ed Crutchfield of First Union and Bill Lee, the newly retired CEO of Duke Power. In that same year, we elected a new mayor, Pat McCrory.

Since my arrival to Charlotte, much has changed. We have elected a new mayor for the first time in 14 years. The business landscape has shifted, often with new leaders taking the reigns. Yet in some regards, much remains the same. People keep looking for those who will lead our community going forward. Results of a recent poll were published in the Charlotte Observer, with musing of how this responsibility is shifting away from business leaders to public and nonprofit leadership. But my view of leadership has changed a lot in the last 15 years; so I find that discussion unnecessary.

To give you some context, I spent 30 years in corporate America – the first 17 with IBM and the balance with First Union/Wachovia. I loved my experience with those companies. They were good to me and I strongly believe I was good to them. But I learned that a paternalistic culture, with much dependence on a few leaders, can be dangerous. I still remember my frustration in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s when I realized that the IBM I had come to love was no longer viable. Their paternalistic approach to things such as full employment, no cost health benefits and promotion from within all created a false sense of security in many of their 400,000+ employees. So when I left IBM and moved to Charlotte, I was intent on shifting my views away from entitlement and towards empowerment. At the time, this was about my professional identity, but in the past few years I have broadened this perspective to include my community identity.

I have come to realize that leadership in a community is very different from leadership in an organization. The latter often operates (at least in the more traditional sense) in a hierarchy, with authority given and responsibility defined. Both IBM and First Union/Wachovia fostered cultures that embrace participative leadership, but at the end of the day, it was clear who would set direction and ultimately be accountable.

A community is much different. James Krile, in The Community Leadership Handbook (Fieldstone Alliance Publishing, 2006), says that a community is made up of people who share a particular place and all the resources located there. He defines a healthy community as a place where all people can meet their personal needs, work together for the common good and participate in creating their collective future. A community leader is one who works with others to develop and sustain the health of the community. But that can be challenging, because a community is a “shared power” environment, where the interests are multi-faceted and no one person can mandate a direction, yet lots of people can say “no”.

Because of that, a different kind of leadership is evolving in our community – collaborative leadership. It’s not about appointing (or anointing) someone as a community leader. It’s about all of us accepting our own role in civic engagement for the common good. If we are to realize a healthy, vibrant community, the challenges will be complex.

Collaborative leadership involves dialogue in which we seek out diverse views, share power and experience conflict, none of which is comfortable. Most importantly, collaboration takes time, sometimes leaving on-lookers to wonder if anything is happening at all. But in the end, collaboration results in much better decisions and greater buy-in.

Our community has a wealth of motivated, passionate, creative leaders. Yes, some of those leaders are in positions of authority relative to the needs of our community. But others are people who find the time beyond their “day job” to make a difference in our community. This is why I don’t see a need to publicly name those few, visible leaders who will replace the Hugh McColls of the world. Instead, we need to spend our energy celebrating the wealth of collaborative leaders who demonstrate their commitment to the common good of the Charlotte Region every day.

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