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Unlikely Partnerships

This is the ninth in a series of posts that will examine ten insights Community Wealth Partners has uncovered through our research of and experience with initiatives that have created transformational social change. This series was introduced in a previous post.

This week, we continue our conversation about the importance of creating shared leadership. In last week’s post, Amy Celep, CEO of Community Wealth Partners, wrote about the importance of creating a culture of trust in order to achieve true collaborative leadership.

In reflecting on trust and leadership, we are reminded of Nelson Mandela, who marked his 94th birthday last week and of the deep distrust that pervaded South Africa when Mandela assumed the presidency. The UN has declared the day to be “Mandela Day” with the aim of encouraging the world to reflect on the former South African president’s role in bringing his country out of apartheid and beginning the process of healing a nation beset by hatred and distrust. How did he build trust and shared leadership, and what can we learn from his powerful legacy?

Today we will explore the importance of including unlikely partners in transformational efforts requiring shared leadership. Partnerships among leaders are critical to achieving lasting change. No person is an island, and no organization can do it alone. When seeking advice or support, we often find ourselves reaching out to familiar faces: our colleagues and friends.  Let us instead consider what more we could achieve by engaging the unusual suspects and building unlikely partnerships.

In recalling Mandela’s legacy, we are reminded of his story of building an unlikely partnership with the South African rugby team, a story retold in the film Invictus. Despite protests from his advisors and supporters, Mandela reached across the racial gap to engage Francois Pienaar, the South African rugby team’s captain, in joint pursuit of racial reconciliation. Although Pienaar was a leader in his own right, he represented the white elite and had never publically engaged in his country’s racial debate. He was reluctant to join the political discussion. Nonetheless, Mandela saw in Pienaar a potential—albeit unlikely—partner, and a possible bridge between disjointed and opposing groups.

Unlikely bonds build a broader network of support, garner attention, and help expand the resources at your disposal to solve some of the most complex social problems. The Environmental Defense Fund has engaged some of the world’s largest corporations–and worst polluters–to decrease waste and lower costs. Dr. Jay Winsten, the architect of the designated driver movement, created transformational change by convincing Hollywood executives to put designated driver references into movie and television scripts, which spread his life-saving message to his target audience.

To build unlikely bonds, consider the questions: “What potential partnerships would broaden your organization’s network of influence? What constituency do you need on board in order to better achieve your mission?” Once you’ve identified your unlikely partners, how can you convince them to share leadership in achieving your mission?

  1. Convince them that they have the power to make a difference.
  2. Show them that they have an obligation to lead.

Mandela empowered Pienaar to see himself as more than just a rugby player. Pienaar was a national figurehead with a voice that held sway beyond the rugby pitch. Once Pienaar saw himself as a potential national leader, Mandela demonstrated the country’s thirst for a bond that would transcend race and unite his people as South Africans. Faced with this truth, Pienaar could not refuse the President—he had to take a stand to help bring peace. Pienaar took up his nation’s flag and led his team to a World Cup championship. The event brought together a multiracial fan base and focused the eyes of the world on a healing, unified South Africa.

What unlikely bonds will breathe new life into your mission? Who will share leadership with you as you embark on a journey to achieve your transformational goals? Let us know your thoughts via Twitter @WeDreamForward.

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