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Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership

Collaboration: Being a piece of the greater whole

  • Gerard Seijts, Kimberley Young Milani
  • |
  • Oct 10, 2019
Collaboration: Being a piece of the greater whole


Character is an indispensable component of sustainable leadership performance.  Ivey research has identified 11 dimensions of leader character: accountability, collaboration, courage, drive, humanity, humility, integrity, judgment, justice, temperance, and transcendence. In this blog, I explore the leader character dimension of collaboration.  Effective leaders must be capable of collaborating with others both inside and outside their organizations.  Beyond this, leaders must be constantly striving to create collaborative networks and relationships that can be developed and mined to support creativity, innovation, and productivity to drive their organization’s interests, as well as the common good.  

Leaders who are unwilling or unable to collaborate with others—whether in formal teams, looser working groups or committees, trade associations, business government panels or myriad other contexts—are of limited value in our increasingly interdependent world where networks of people and organizations form the basis of so much economic activity.  A deep, visceral, and intellectual understanding of the nature of interconnectedness, in combination with the development of a disposition to collaborate for mutual interest and the greater good, are critical to becoming and being an effective leader in a wide variety of contexts.

Legendary investor Warren Buffet offered an interesting perspective on interconnectedness when he observed that “someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.”  But even if we agree with Buffett that we are interconnected—over time, and in real time at school and in the workplace—that agreement doesn’t necessarily bring about collaboration. 

So what do we mean by collaboration?  When you are collaborative, you value and actively support the development and maintenance of positive relationships among people.  You encourage open dialogue and don’t react defensively when challenged. You are able to connect with others at a fundamental level in a way that fosters the productive sharing of ideas. And finally, you recognize that what happens to someone, somewhere, can affect everyone, anywhere.

Hollywood presented a sentimentalized version of some of these elements of collaboration in the 2005 drama Coach Carter. In the film, members of a basketball team—after watching their weakest player be humiliated by a stern coach (played by the formidable Samuel L. Jackson)—stepped forward to do the sprints and push-ups that their exhausted team member simply couldn’t do.  “You said we're a team,” said one of the athletes, explaining their action.  “One person struggles, we all struggle. One person triumphs, we all triumph.”

That scene may have been polished to a high gloss, but the real world sometimes presents similar lessons.  The 2014 Canadian women’s Olympic hockey team exemplified what great teamwork looks like. Before the team went to Sochi, they had made special gold necklaces that each team member wore throughout the games. The necklaces were puzzle piece shaped. Every four pieces joined together to make a square. On each necklace was written: “Unity in Adversity.”  The women worked as a team and realized that they were each a piece of a greater whole. As Chantal Bechervaise wrote: “That is how everyone in the workplace should see themselves … that they each form a piece of a greater whole and that each person is contributing to the overall success of the company. We are stronger, more innovative, and creative, and can accomplish more as a team than we can individually.”

George Cope— former president and CEO of Bell Canada Enterprises Inc. and Bell Canada—Canada’s largest telecommunications company—draws a similar lesson from the career of hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, who won four Stanley Cup championships with the Edmonton Oilers between 1984 and 1988:

I’m a sports junkie, and I find it interesting that the Edmonton Oilers won the Stanley Cup after Wayne Gretzky left, but Wayne Gretzky never won the Stanley Cup again after he left.  That was a profound lesson for me.  Gretzky is the best hockey player the world has ever seen, but he never won the cup without that team.  There’s no individual who’s bigger than the team.  It’s always about the team.

Cope is underscoring the fact that the end product—in this case, a Stanley Cup—requires the whole team to work together.  A team will not reach its full collaborative potential if the participants, and especially its leaders, don’t believe deeply that collaboration is essential for success.

These examples illustrate the following key lessons:  Being collaborative requires being open-minded and flexible, otherwise, you are simply asserting your own point of view.

  • Being interconnected fosters collegiality and cooperation since you more readily acknowledge and appreciate other perspectives.
  • Being interconnected also allows us to remain receptive and open-minded when others challenge our thinking.
  • Collegiality and being open-minded facilitates cooperation.

Further, having worked at the Ivey Business School for almost two decades, it has never been more clear to me that success depends on the compassion, empathy and respect you show towards your fellow students; the courage to call out unacceptable behaviour; your sense of justice to act equitably and fairly; and your ability to engage in true collaboration, devoid of exclusion or stereotyping.  An excellent example of integrity and collaboration is Patrick Hickey, HBA ‘19.  Patrick briefly explains the importance of collaboration in this short video.

You can read more about collaboration in the book Developing Leadership Character written by Ivey Business School professors Mary Crossan, Gerard Seijts and Jeffrey Gandz (New York, NY: Routledge, 2016).