In his column on the Op-Ed page of the November 25 New York Times, David Brooks describes the “unifying leader,” who is “skilled at the art of collaboration.” According to Brooks, the unifying leader “sees himself as a stage setter, as a person who makes it possible for the creativity in his organization to play itself out. The collaborative leader lessens the power distance between himself and everybody else. He believes that problems are too complex for one brain, but if he can create the right context and nudge a group process along, the team will come up with solutions.”
Brooks makes a compelling case for collaborative leadership and the value of compromise, but I didn’t need convincing. Experience has taught me that really “board-savvy” nonprofit and public sector CEOs are invariably collaborators par excellence. They always work in close partnership with their board members in getting complex, high-stakes decisions made and fully implemented. That’s how Nuria Fernandez, General Manager/CEO of the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority in San Jose, California and her Board of Directors were able to maintain high-quality services and achieve financial stability during the recent Great Recession. And that’s how CEO Lana Vukovljak and her Board at the American Association of Diabetes Educators were able to accomplish a major re-structuring of member involvement at the chapter level, and superintendents Greg Hutchings and Karen Rue were able to build such solid and productive working relationships with the school boards in their respective districts – the Shaker Heights Schools (Ohio) and the Northwest Independent School District (Texas).
My only caveat to the general rule that collaboration, cooperation, and compromise are highly desirable leadership strategies has to do with the ends being sought. CEOs are ethically obliged to observe – and work to preserve – not only the adopted core values that guide and constrain the organizations they lead, but also the more universal values that transcend particular organizations. . Collaboration in the interest of an end that violates a core value – such as behaving honestly, being transparent in decision-making, never knowingly harming a member or customer – is a sure-fire strategy not only for damaging an organization’s public image, but also eroding one of the CEO’s most precious assets, her credibility. You’d have no problem coming up with recent examples of tarnished images and eroded credibility as a result of collaboration at the expense of principle. The NFL provides us with an egregious example, but sad to say, it’s far from the only one in recent history.