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 we 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 ourselves – differently. Let’s take this one step at a time. In terms of ourselves, we become accustomed to thinking of ourselves in certain ways, professionally and otherwise and last week we referred to this as identity. Identity is simply a word that describes how we think of ourselves and how others think of us.

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

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.

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 we will think about a couple of ways in which we can reflect on our own identities as a means of opening our own identities to difference.

1 Ellen reflects on difference

3 Identity and difference