What can collaborative leaders learn from a jelly fish?

You may have spotted a Portugese man o’war, also known as a bluebottle jellyfish, washed up on a beach over the last summer. As the ocean warms, they are travelling further north. Hopefully you didn’t pick it up, as it delivers a painful sting even when dead. What you may not realise is that these creatures can prompt powerful insights into collaborative leadership. Jonathan Males explains more here...

I recently learned that this remarkable creature, which looks like it was created by the special effects team for a Sci-fi movie, is not actually a single animal. It is a colonial organism made up of many different types of polyps that are each responsible for the different functions it needs to survive – some sting to kill prey, some digest food, some reproduce, and some hold the whole colony together.

Why is this relevant? Because this amazing animal is a living metaphor for organisations. We talk about companies as though they are individuals; “British Gas handled that issue badly”, “Coca Cola shouldn’t put so much sugar in their drinks”, “I love Tesla” and so on. Yet like the man o’war, this single identity is something of an illusion. Just as the man o’war is a colony not one animal, organisations are complex systems created by the interactions of many inter-dependent people. We must therefore remember that it’s impossible to try to lead or change an organisation as if it were ‘one animal’ – because despite appearances, that single thing does not really exist. Yet leadership is problematic too if we only focus on individuals. Imagine what would happen to the man o’war if we started to tinker with some of the polyps without considering their contribution to the whole colony. And any single polyp has limited relevance and impact on the whole animal.

How then do we need to lead?
Collaborative leadership and relationships

Let’s take some learning from the field of complex systems rather than marine biology. Systems are sustained because of habitual patterns of interaction. In a company, this means its culture and working processes, that are driven by the quality of relationships between individual people. So, to change a company, you need to focus on how people interact – that is, how they speak and behave – with each other. Change at this granular, relational level is powerful and can quickly ripple through a system.

This relational change starts with your leadership community because any single leader, like a single polyp, has limited influence and understanding of the whole organism. No single leader, no matter how smart, experienced, or capable, can possibly make sense of all the relevant options and make good decisions alone. So, in a complex world, developing collaborative leadership is essential. Working as a community allows leaders to ask questions and share perspectives and experience to generate better options than they would alone. By acting individually yet together, leaders can also start to shape behavioural change that then influences the whole organisation.

What does it mean to be a collaborative leader? Let me contrast it with functional leadership, which will be familiar to most leaders already. Functional leadership focuses deep into a company, creating loyalty and a commitment to deliver specific functions or services. At best, this leads to efficient and focused outputs, at worst it contributes to siloes and turf warfare.

Being a collaborative leader builds on functional leadership and requires a greater capacity to take a big picture view, and to take a longer time horizon into account. It requires an appreciation of systems thinking and a curiosity about how different aspects of a business inter-relate. It needs a good deal of self-awareness and the ability, when necessary, to put the good of the whole organisation above the needs of your own team. It requires a willingness to reach out to offer and ask for support.

This may sound like a daunting list of requirements. How can you start to develop collaborative leadership?

Simple habits

I love and thoroughly recommend the book “Simple habits for complex times” by Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Harrison. I want to borrow and extend the idea of ‘simple habits’ as the key to successful collaborative leadership. Here are three simple habits to get you going:

1. Remember your purpose

In the daily grind of emails and video meetings it’s all too easy to fall into a narrow, confined view of your job. Your field of view becomes the computer screen in front of you. Hopefully as post pandemic life emerges, we’ll enjoy more variety and human interaction. In the meantime, remind yourself of why you do your job. Who benefits, directly and indirectly, from your efforts? Whether internal colleagues or external customers or stakeholders, how does your work help them?

Keeping your purpose in mind and talking to others about it ensures that you stay connected with what’s most important, it can fuel your motivation and engagement, and it can prompt ‘course corrections’ if you realise that you’re not heading in the right direction. It’s a powerful way to shift your perspective and take a longer term, wider view of your role. It reminds you of how, and why, you relate to people beyond your immediate team.

2. See people as people not objects

Under pressure, or in times of conflict, your brain plays a funny trick to help you survive. It changes the way you perceive others. Rather than experiencing colleagues or customers as living, breathing people, you start to register them as objects. Objects that are either barriers to your survival – and getting the job done feels like a matter of life or death in this state of mind – or resources that you need right now. This leads to transactional (at best) or abusive (at worst) relationships. In this state of mind, it’s pretty much impossible to be an effective collaborative leader, because you’re focused solely on your own needs.

Seeing people as people is natural to humans and the capacity for empathy, understanding and collaboration is one of the reasons our species has been so successful. The key to re-awakening your natural capacity is self-awareness. When you are objectifying others, you have lost your self-awareness and become too focused on the task and your own fears. Simply noticing that this is happening creates the space for change. You can then make a choice, to either continue as you are, or to pause and remember that other person is neither a resource nor barrier, but is a human being just like you. Self-awareness is the easiest way to return humanity to your relationships.

3. Ask different questions to keep learning

Jennifer Harvey Berger describes this habit beautifully. In a complex world no single person can hope to have a complete understanding or know all the facts. Yet most of the time we ask questions not to learn but to reinforce what we already believe. Perhaps this comes out of insecurity, or a desire to appear powerful or smart. Collaborative leaders recognise and accept their own limits and aren’t afraid of showing vulnerability. So rather than needing to always be right, they will ask questions like “how might I be wrong about this?” “what does this person know that I don’t?” “what’s a different way of thinking about this issue?” A leader who asks these sorts of questions will radically and productively improve the quality of thinking, relating and action in their organisation.

The power of teams

Once your senior leaders are developing these habits and relating differently to each other within a leadership, what next? How do you help other people in your organisation also start to relate with each other differently?

The answer is simple. Use your teams. Teams are the delivery vehicle for any organisation. They are the place where new ideas get developed, problems get solved, and real work gets done. It’s easier to see what your colleagues are doing or saying and to challenge or support them within a team. It’s easier for your colleagues to see what you’re doing, or not doing, too. All this make teams the ideal container for learning, practicing, and embedding these new habits.

Your team purpose in probably more immediate and accessible than your whole organisation’s purpose. If you know how your team’s purpose contributes to the whole, then this becomes a ‘north star’ that lifts your focus beyond your individual roles. Developing the habits that sustain healthy constructive relationships is also easier with the people you work with regularly, because you have a shared language and expectations of each other. This also feeds the third habit of continual learning, because you can foster psychological safety more readily in a team. When people feel safe to ask different questions, take risks and speak up, learning speeds up too.

To conclude

I began by comparing organisations to a Portuguese man o’war. Let me finish by pointing out two important ways that organisations are NOT like a jelly fish.

Individual polyps are not conscious – certainly not in the way we are as humans. We each have our own needs, aspirations, and fears. We also have individual agency (or at least a belief that we can exert influence) that a single polyp lacks. I believe leaders have a responsibility to themselves, to the people with whom you work, and your clients and stakeholders, to create the healthiest, highest performing organisations we can. Healthy in terms of individual’s wellbeing and learning, and high performing in terms of efficiently and sustainably producing goods or services of real value.

Secondly, a man o’war floats with the current, collecting food, reproducing, and then dying. It is perfectly integrated with its environment and doesn’t try to change anything beyond its own colony. Organisations are different because they need a collective purpose that drives their direction, growth, and contribution. They can’t remain passive like the jelly fish, but neither can they strive for endless growth. Steve Jobs may have talked about Apple existing to put a dent in the universe but having a purpose and contributing doesn’t need to be so grandiose. As long as your purpose gives you direction and meaning beyond your own personal needs, it will do the trick.

As we emerge from the pandemic and re-engage with each other in person, it’s more important than ever for leaders to bring connection and meaning to work. We can experience both connection and meaning through our relationships, and in the process maybe even create an organisation as magical and beautiful as a Portuguese man o’war.

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