Thursday, February 7, 2013

IAF: Coalition Leadership: An Emerging Model

Institute for Alternative Futures

Forward Perspectives

[Eric Meade Photo]
Coalition Leadership: An Emerging Model
By Eric Meade, Senior Futurist & Vice President
Health leaders in the federal government come together under one agency's auspices to identify strategies they can pursue together, finding that the informal links between them often prove more effective for cooperation than the formal policies and structures of government.  Foundations form partnerships with community stakeholders to take on challenges beyond what they could do on their own, finding that their financial resources are only part of what they bring to the table.  In various sectors, leaders are doing things differently – working beyond their hierarchies and siloes and building coalitions and networks to achieve an ever greater mission than a single organization can take on.
IAF has been tracking these developments and has noted the emergence of a new model of leadership, which can be called "coalition leadership."  Coalition leadership deviates from conventional notions of leadership in several important ways, in particular by focusing on: 
  • Trust, not fear – Coalition leaders are willing to trust those around them, and are willing to let go of the fears (e.g., of failure, incompetence, or lack of control) that typically come with positions of leadership.  They can let go of leadership tactics that have historically disempowered people and they can unleash the full creative power of those around them.
  • Nodes, not hubs – Coalition leaders are willing to see themselves as just another "node" in a larger network working toward a common purpose, rather than as a "hub" around which others should organize themselves as "spokes."  Coalition leaders bring what they bring, while valuing the contributions brought by others.
  • Mission, not organization – Coalition leaders are concerned with contribution, not attribution.  Their principal aim is achieving the mission, not preserving the organization itself or building its brand.  This frees them to collaborate more willingly on innovative initiatives with the potential to advance the mission.
  • Influence, not power – Coalition leaders seek influence across a wide network of people and organizations, but in exchange they are willing to forgo the power that leaders have historically wielded.  This is because they play a "long game," and they recognize that true transformation cannot be effected through power alone.  Others must be brought along if the changes are to last.
  • Soul, not role – Coalition leaders see beyond the job titles or other professional "masks" that people wear, appreciating the fullness and individuality of every human being.  For themselves, they focus on what they feel is their own true calling rather than on achieving status through higher and larger roles.
This new model of "coalition leadership" strikes at the core of many of our assumptions about what leadership is and should be.  For example, leaders are typically evaluated based on whether or not they have achieved their goals.  It is commonly thought that goals should be "achievable," and the implication is that they should be achievable with the resources at the leader’s disposal.  The fear that these resources may be wasted then prompts a set of evaluation methods that tend to increase the leader's aversion to risk.  This then incentivizes leaders to set goals that are less ambitious than they might otherwise be.  For example, after working with a government agency to set its GPRA goals (goals that are submitted to the Office of Management and Budget), IAF concluded that government agencies consistently underperform because they are guided by goals that are set too low because of the penalties associated with their non-achievement.
By emphasizing the role of an organization simply as a node on a larger network, the concept of coalition leadership implies that if an organization can achieve its goals on its own, and with its own resources, then the goals are not ambitious enough.  This is consistent with the fact that the most important challenges we face today are beyond what any one organization could solve on its own; collaboration across a wide range of stakeholders is essential.  Coalition leadership then offers a framework for how these great challenges can be overcome – through the wise exercise of influence across networks of peer organizations, all committed to a common purpose.
For more information on "coalition leadership" and its implications for your organization, contact Eric Meade at
Note: This article is informed by Wei-Skillern, Jane, & Marciano, Sonia, “The Networked Nonprofit”,  Stanford Social Innovation Review , Spring 2008.  All five bullets are informed by Laloux, Frederic, Yellow Organizations: A Handbook for Organizations’ Next Evolutionary Stage (unpublished manuscript).

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