The Covid 19 epidemic is the latest in a string of phenomena — immigration and environmental pollution among them — that cannot be addressed on a purely national level. We know need cross-border and cross-sector collaboration, but do we fully understand how to lead these multi-stakeholder collaborations effectively?
Katharina joined IMD as Professor of Leadership in September 2019. She has taught executives globally, specializing in self-leadership and cross-cultural team leadership in times of Change.
Before joining IMD, Katharina led the Office of Executive Development at Singapore Management University (SMU). Being at SMU since 2013, she directed Open Programs such as the Asia Leaders Program in Infrastructure or the J&J Hospital Management Program as well as a plethora of Custom Programs for global corporate clients.
In 2018 she was appointed as member of the Board of UNICON, the global consortium for university based executive education. From 2017 – 2019 Katharina served as Board member on the Board of Governors of the German European School Singapore.
Review: The innovation of printing
In her eye-opening book The Coming Democracy, Ann Florini delves straight into one of the most transformational inventions of our times – the printing press, brainchild of Johannes Gutenberg. From then on, our ability to print books democratized knowledge and information suddenly became accessible, where it had before been a privilege of the elites.
Printing made books cheaper and able to be translated from Latin into the local language. It also ended the Catholic church’s monopoly on reading and interpreting. The ensuing transparency eventually caught up with an existing dissatisfaction with the Catholic church, galvanising the Protestant Reformation.
With more people having access to knowledge, literacy increased and empowered the age of enlightenment. At the same time, the translated bibles strengthened the communities that shared a language which eventually gave rise to national states. The innovation of printing had accelerated the construction of our modern identities: enlightened, autonomous people living in national states.
Present: The transformation of life
Could we be at a similar cross-roads today? The parallels between then and now are striking: like then, today we perceive information to be in abundance and data transparency is spiralling out of control. If the conditions are similar, could the outcome also be? In other words, are people’s identities and ways of life about to be transformed?
The mindset of globally informed citizens is not confined by national boundaries. Travel, migration and information exchange blur national identities. Similarly, the problems facing society today extend well beyond national boundaries: global migration, environmental pollution, terrorist threats and contagious epidemics cannot be moderated by national governments alone.
Outlook: New Ways of thinking, governance and leadership
Tackling these transnational challenges requires different ways of thinking, governance and leadership. One of the emerging options for addressing complex, transnational problems is multi-stakeholder, cross-sectoral and transnational partnerships. When run skilfully and with expertise, these collaborative efforts can move the needle on complex problems very effectively.
Thankfully, enough expertise has been accumulated over the experiences of recent years. Pain and pressure to change rose together: devastating hurricanes, hellish Australian bushfires, and the coronavirus outbreak serve as examples.
One of the key insights in studying how multi-party stakeholder collaborations work is that central platforms increase the likelihood of success. They facilitate a democratic, solution-driven process. A central secretariat coordinates processes and creates a sense of fairness by moderating opposing interests and facilitating integrative decision making.
Insight: Leading collective genius
These platforms demonstrate similarities with a leadership style described as “leading collective genius”. And it is very different from the classic connotation of a heroic leader who thinks that he or she holds all the answers.
Leading collective genius means creating an environment in which others are willing and able to do the hard work. It serves greatly in the context of true innovation. Such leaders acknowledge that solutions arrive from trial and error, not from thinking it through alone. They know that an idea is rarely born fully mature. Rather, ideas go through multiple cycles of abrasion, combination and modification before turning into a viable solution. This holds true even more so if the idea needs to serve very diverse stakeholders.
Unsurprisingly, we find such leaders in businesses that are under intense pressure to innovate. They are also omnipresent in creative arts. These leaders describe the process as an explorative journey, characterized by collaboration, discovery-driven learning and integrative decision making.
As moderators of this process, leaders can hold – and work alongside others with – opposing opinions, to co-create a novel solution. They are able to moderate naturally occurring conflicts in their diverse teams and even view them as a means to discover greater truth. Honing collective genius leadership traits in those who run multi-stakeholder collaborations could well be one promising way to create a sustainable future.