Synergy, according to Wikipedia, occurs when different entities cooperate advantageously for a final outcome; simply that the whole becomes greater than the sum of the individual parts. So what does a synergistic leader look like?
In their book, Leadership Agility, Joiner and Josephs, define synergists as those who “experience leadership as participation in a palpable life purpose that benefits others while serving as a vehicle for personal transformation.” There were many parts to that statement that we’ll explore through the story of Barb, a fictional character.
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Barb was hired by Larry, a senior Plant Manager, to lead the Human Resources function at his plant. Larry had become excited about the possibilities for radically changing how his plant operated after reading The Lean Manager. He was hoping that Barb would bring a fresh new perspective his management team.
Barb had an interesting track record. She’s begun her career as a pulp and paper engineer, working in various parts of paper-making process, putting in a stint in the training functions, and earning her Six Sigma green belt. Desiring a break from the paper industry, Barb learned about a foundation seeking to improve health in Mali through the implementation of simple behavioral changes. During her year in Africa, Barb realized how own mindsets, beliefs and patterns of behavior got in the way of influencing behavioral change in others. She was fortunate to work with some masterful influencers, and learned how to become acutely aware of what others were thinking and feeling. These skills helped her work through conflicts and bring forward new solutions that supported the needs of the local communities and improved health conditions.
While proud of her work, Barb believed that she could have a broader impact on the world, by bringing her influence skills back into the corporate world. Returning to the US, Barb entered into a graduate program in Leadership and Organizational Change. Due to family constraints, Barb looked for a position in the local community and was thrilled when she talked with Larry about the opportunity at his plant. It was at the level of changing the world, but would give her real-world experience in bringing about change in a very traditional environment.
Barb was barely in the door before the union officials were filing grievances about work cells, the logistics manager was complaining about the manufacturing manager’s incompetence at understanding material flow, and the maintenance supervisors were threatening to quit over disruptions to their change-over processes. Friday afternoon of her first week came around and Barb was thinking about quitting. Arriving home that night, she found in her mail a letter from her colleagues in Mali. They talked about how much progress had been made, the ongoing conflicts and challenges, the children that were now living and studying as a result of the improvements, and how confident they were that she would be able to bring about changes in whatever place she chose. Barb was humbled. How could she walk away from this plant? She knew that if Larry wasn’t able to bring about the desired changes, it was only time before more people would be out of work and there would be one more empty factory on the landscape. A weekend of reading, meditation, and reflection gave Barb the strength to start again the following week. She didn’t know how she would do it, but she was determined to use her knowledge of influence in making this operation a star in the company, in community and maybe, if she was lucky, engage the plant in how they could make the world a better place.
Barb spent the next two years working hand-in-hand with Larry. They listened, listened, and listened to all of the stakeholders, from the union rep, to the mayor of the town, to the corporate R&D folks. They heard and acknowledged the pain and frustration of the slow decline in the business, and they searched for and shined spotlights on every bit of agreement or progress. Over time, they consistently seemed to bring together apparently irreconcilable viewpoints into creative solutions. They kept a focus not just on the question of what contributions could this plant make to the company, but how could this plant make contributions to improving the world we live in. By keeping a vision beyond the walls of the plan, they found that teams began to spring up focused on green initiatives, on community outreach, and even supporting Barb’s former colleagues in Mali with materials and ideas. The best part was that the team cut across functions, levels and union/management ranks increasing collaboration not just on the teams but in the workplace. Looking back, Barb would say that neither she nor Larry knew where their path might lead when they started out, but that somehow they were okay with the “not knowing”.
Characteristics of Synergists:
Synergists have well-developed competencies of the leader levels before them. What sets them apart are:
- A sense of life purpose that is displayed through the initiatives they undertake
- A highly collaborative style focused on amplifying the positives and turning adversaries into friends and allies
- A focus on the question of what contributions this company or organization can make to the world, to its people, through its work
- A powerful presence that allows a vision which serves multiple, conflicting stakeholders views and interests
- A comfort and ease in working on ill-structured problems; of long periods of “not knowing”
- An ability to resolve apparently irreconcilable conflicts and complex interdependent issues
Coaching the Synergist
- Take time to experience life to the fullest. Become intensely aware of your own feelings, emotions and compassion.
- Continually develop and deepen your sense of purpose and explore how you can align others’ energy with your direction
- Practice holding in your mind, without judgment, conflicting perspectives, views and interests
- Increase your agility in choosing and using the appropriate style – expertise, authority, personal and political power, facilitation, integration, visionary, participative, directive, etc.