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Collaborative leadership in voluntary organisations
Collaborative leadership in voluntary organisations

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2 Reflecting on difference

Crucial for any form of collaborative leadership is the basic idea that it involves working closely with other people. There are two other things to bear in mind regarding collaborative leadership. First, it usually involves working with new people or groups – people you do not necessarily think of as regular, day-to-day collaborators: this is because wicked problems seem to need the input of a wide variety of perspectives. Leadership, as outlined in Week 1, involves stretching the boundaries of organisational and social problems. If problems are not to be regarded as more complex and unwieldy, then it stands to reason that they will require a broader range of people to put their minds and talents to work at these problems.

Second, and most crucially for this week, collaborative leadership means relating to other people – and yourself – differently. Let’s take this one step at a time. In terms of yourself, you become accustomed to thinking of yourself in certain ways, professionally and otherwise and last week we referred to this as identity. Identity is simply a word that describes how you think of yourself and how others think of you.

When you think about and relate to other people, you inevitably filter your impressions through the prism of your own identity. It is sometimes hard to appreciate that others will see the world very differently to you. Everyone is exposed to various experiences, relationships and pressures that contribute to how you think of yourself and how you are thought of. You cannot really know what it is like to occupy the identity of another, but you can remain open to exploring what it might be like.

A picture of a long row of different shoes.
Figure 2 Your shoes or mine?

Bear in mind here that organisations, professions and even sectors have identities, as well as people. They develop collective – if also contested – ways of thinking about and seeing the world.

Let’s provide you with an example of how identity can shape our work: I (Owain) cannot, professionally, remove my knowledge of political discourse and language: I tend to see patterns that can be enlightening but also sometimes dispiriting. I was brought up to think of myself in the world communally, of my responsibility to others and find it hard to think of only myself and my own interests in politics. Materially, I cannot escape the fact that I, at present, live a fairly comfortable life, in a pleasant middle class neighbourhood, employed in a fulfilling job in a stable and respected organisation. My parents did not have this privilege, of course, but it is impossible for me to understand what life would have been like for my father growing up in a working class community in west Wales. I do not know what it is like to live in social housing, getting by on insecure employment, people who have felt the brunt of globalisation and tough economic times.

But does this mean that my identity is always sealed off to difference, to being able to reach out and stretch my thinking? No, of course not.

In the next section you will think about a couple of ways in which you can reflect on your own identity as a means of opening your own identity to difference.