Bridging Divides

Collaboration among a diverse range of stakeholders is now widely regarded as essential for addressing the most pressing, complex social and business issues. The reasons for this rise of interest in collaboration across sectors are fairly clear: no one actor, sector or group possess sufficient knowledge, resources, skills or energy to successfully counter the complex dynamics that hold poverty in place, for example, or that put oil-sands development ahead of acting boldly to forestall climate and other environmental disasters. In cities across Canada, government, business, faith-based organizations, school boards, multicultural organizations and others are joining forces to, among other initiatives, strengthen poor neighborhoods, build safe communities and eliminate homelessness. For example, recently we worked with the city of Kitchener, Ontario which brought together 90 community stakeholders to create a Culture of Safety.


While the rationale and appetite for engaging a diverse range of stakeholders are apparent, the challenges of bridging the differences between different actors and catalyzing collective action remains as formidable as ever. Nevertheless, there are grounds to be hopeful – around the world, numerous leaders from business, civil society and government have managed to assemble collaborative initiatives, just as the City of Kitchener did, to address issues such as child labour practices, access to safe water, and community economic improvement.

In our consulting practice, we have found that leadership for collaboration across stakeholder groups requires a set of capabilities and beliefs that draws on characteristics that differ from what leaders draw upon in an organizational setting where one can rely on position and authority. We are not the only practitioners and researchers to write about this kind of leadership. There is a growing interest in what has been called collaborative leadership, facilitative leadership, bridging leadership, boundary-crossing leadership.

The most effective leadership we’ve witnessed in situations dealing with the types of “messy opportunities” mentioned above has come from people who possess at least two characteristics:

  1. A willingness to take risks concerning something for which they have a deep passion
  2. An ability to see the big picture and seize opportunities where others see only obstacles

Here is an example that comes from a recent letter written by Jeroen van der Veer, Chief Executive of Royal Dutch Shell. For many years, Royal Dutch Shell has used scenario planning to prepare itself for the future. Scenarios are detailed stories about the future based on research into current trends and possible developments. Rather than predictions about what might happen, scenarios contain a set of ideas intended to help employees and leaders think deeply about the world and their company, about what is happening now and what could happen in the future.

In the letter, Mr. van der Veer describes recent scenario planning focusing on two possible futures concerning the world’s energy system by 2100. One possible scenarios, termed the Scramble scenario, has nations rushing to secure energy resources for themselves. In the Blueprints scenario, coalitions emerge to take on the challenges of economic development, energy security and environmental pollution through cross-border cooperation. Traditionally, Shell does not express a preference for one scenario over another. In a departure from this tradition, Mr. van der Veer states: “… faced with the need to manage climate risk for our investors and our descendants, we believe the Blueprints outcomes provide the best balance between economy, energy and environment.”

While there are no details concerning the scenarios in the letter, presenting both in such a public way is a good example of reaching across boundaries towards a more collaborative future, showing a willingness to risk and an ability to see the big picture.