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Excerpt from The Power of Co:

An excerpt from Chapter Two: The Paradox of Power

Excerpt from The Power of Co

Fundamentals of the Power of ‘Co’

The Power of ‘Co’ or Smart Power reflects this kind of leadership. It includes recognising the limits to our positional and expert power and tapping into not only our own wisdom but also the wisdom of all those interested, energetic individuals who have a stake in the outcome of our actions.

Leadership success hinges on a shared appreciation of the context, the constraints, and the dimensions of situations or issues in order to recognise that we are not always in charge, and be able to surrender the need to control the process and the outcome. Leaders need to build positive and trustful relationships between those who can help find solutions. They need to support processes that allow robust solutions to emerge from careful deliberation.

Conversations lead us to relationships, which in turn lead us to transactions. It’s a process that can’t be circumvented. Conversations first build relationships. When trustful relationships exist, creative solutions become possible. Without trust there is unlikely to be creativity.

Smart leadership is not about holding onto power. It’s not about coming up with all the answers. Smart leadership is about recognising limits to power and drawing on the collective knowledge and wisdom of others.

In our work, we have seen leaders achieve more power when they let go and accepted help from diverse sources that enabled them to arrive at solutions that would have been otherwise unattainable. We’ve seen them experience the realisation that this is a stronger and wiser way to lead.

Demonstrating the Fundamentals

Here are some of our stories of where the Power of ‘Co’, or Smart Power, has been exercised in a practical way to achieve success.

Believing in people

One small but notable example took place when we were doing some work with a local council, the bane of whose existence was a virulent activist who took every opportunity to denigrate council and its staff. We were
warned that the activist was going to be our biggest problem. However, a conversation with this person at his home, while a simple act, had lasting consequences. While the activist continued to disagree with everything we and our client did, the relationship we built allowed ongoing conversations. Rather than demonise the person in question, we chose to see him as an individual who was interested and passionate about community affairs.

Building this relationship was a critical part of the eventual success of the project.

Believing in the wisdom of crowds

In 2001 we were involved in a land use planning project on the edge of San Diego in the USA. It entailed a complex dilemma involving the competing interests of farmers, agriculturalists, environmentalists, developers, and people looking for affordable housing. No matter what proposals were floated, local authorities were getting pilloried constantly by one interest
group or another and quickly became stuck. On the advice of a colleague of ours, the Mayor agreed to try a totally different approach.

This involved the Mayor bringing all the different interest groups together and telling them that if they could come up with a solution they could all live with, he would support it. While the approach could have seen the Mayor accused of abrogating responsibility, he chose to sell the strategy as a means of exercising his responsibility. He also recognised that giving other people the power actually made him more powerful because he was more likely to achieve an outcome that would really deliver.

At the outset, he acknowledged all the challenges, issues and legitimate interests and concerns in play, and highlighted the challenge for the interest groups of working together. He recommended that the groups engage in conversations so they understood each other’s perspectives and views before co-creating a solution that was fair, reasonable and sustainable. The approach worked. After a few days the participating parties came up with something they could all accept. As a result of the power sharing strategy, most agricultural land and areas of environmental importance were preserved, while those people whose land was being bought up were appropriately compensated.

The appreciative approach

Arguably the most revered political and ideological leader of his generation, Mahatma Gandhi was a figure who was prepared to demonstrate his vulnerability and weakness. In doing so, he found he had unprecedented power and influence.

Following the establishment of Indian independence in 1947, Gandhi faced a complex problem. It had been decided that India (at that time home to Hindus and Muslims who found it difficult to live together peacefully) would be partitioned into two separate countries. The central part of India was to remain essentially a Hindu country, while the new country of Pakistan became Muslim. This meant a mass migration of both Hindus and Muslims. Hindus who lived in what was to become Pakistan moved to Hindu India. Muslims living in the part of India remaining Hindu moved to either East or West Pakistan.

The level of excitement and fear in the Punjab region generated by the migration of millions of people created vast social unrest leading to violence and slaughter despite the best efforts of the army to manage the situation.

In the eastern city of Calcutta the situation was predicted to become even more catastrophic. With the army unable to maintain a presence in both locations, Gandhi, a Hindu leader, offered to go there himself. His strategy for quelling the unrest was to live in a house with the local Muslim leader without any security or protection – an approach deemed by many as virtually suicidal. By doing so he was able to forge an atmosphere of togetherness and common humanity within the host community. When partition was complete and a huge planned celebration called Freedom at Midnight commenced, thousands of people, both Hindu and Muslim, danced and sang in the streets of Calcutta.

Thanks to his belief that people could co-exist and his willingness to embrace his powerlessness and vulnerability, Gandhi was able to closely interact with those who were viewed by others as highly adversarial, and achieve an outcome previously thought impossible. Gandhi, who famously said, “Let’s actually think about what is it that people are doing right when they are able to achieve such great things”, created a remarkable phenomenon single-handedly. He chose to believe in the best in people and created a surprising outcome.

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