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How to Be a Collaborator

Indira Gandhi is elected as the first female P...Indira Gandhi is elected as the first female Prime Minister of India (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Indira Gandhi once said, “I suppose that leadership at one time meant muscle; but today it means getting along with people.”

Despite being the first female Prime Minister of India and an extremely influential figure in world history, those close to Gandhi say she felt uncomfortable around educated people because of her own lack of schooling. Despite her persona as a commander, she constantly had to pull from her inner strength and circle of confidants to establish herself outwardly as a leader.

What I draw from this is that leadership and role-modeling in any situation means action, not position. How friends, colleagues, and others perceive us should be centered in our ability to gather the appropriate input to make sound decisions, rather than our need to rely on where we fall in the relationship. However, because of the role modeling we’ve experienced and become conditioned to throughout our lives, many of us think we have to emulate the role of the leader—always decisive and always in control.

If I’m not perceived as a leader and enter into a collaborative situation, I may come across as weak. While that may be the general belief, is it accurate?

In Gandhi’s case, she thrived on collaboration in decision making and it wasn’t a weakness for her at all. We are not pushovers and not inept just because we want to draw on the knowledge of others. Just because I pursue input from my colleagues does not mean I lack an opinion of my own or the ability to formulate a solution. Rather, I firmly believe that two heads are often better than one!

How can you come off as the collaborator instead of a pushover or crowd-pleaser? Here are four ways in which I’ve had success in inspiring collaboration, or collaborative leadership, without appearing to lack confidence:

  1. Make it a partnership. Make everyone feel they are partners in the activity or engagement, whether they are family, employees, clients, or others brought together randomly by an idea.
  2. Invite input. Present ideas in a way that invites input from others. It’s better to be seen as part of the team working toward the goal than the leader of the charge. This typically brings a more open, more innovative dialogue.
  3. Share the credit. Share credit for the ideas generated from the collaboration. This only helps foster future collaborative sessions. 
  4. Earn trust. Earn trust by not presuming you have all the answers. It’s okay to appear confident and create a sense of leadership, but it’s also appropriate to solicit input and show appreciation when a lively discussion ensues. I have found that this inspires confidence in others, and draws out the trust and best efforts of the team to complete the task well.

As a collaborator, I know when the time is right to use my action instead of my “muscle” to call in the collective talent, stimulate idea generation, and let the discussion flow. I don’t think this means I’m passive in my decision making; it just means I’m smart about it. I hope Gandhi would be proud.

Donna W. Salter, Senior Manager - Young Member Initiatives, American Institute of CPAs.

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