Leading SDG implementation collectively

By Petra Kuenkel, Founder and Director, Collective Leadership Institute

The 17 Sustainable Development goals are complex and interlinked. In order to achieve them by 2030 we are all called to rapidly shift the way we lead. Similar to eco-systems, partnerships in multi-stakeholder collaborations do not have a single entity shaping the future of the system. Instead, all parts depend on each other in order to survive as well as mutually evolve. The leadership capacity of each individual part and the leadership capacity of the collective whole are therefore fundamentally linked. The capacity of cross-institutional actors to lead collectively therefore is not a nice-to-have additional skill, but becomes a necessary condition for success.

Leading collectively, across the boundaries of several institutions, challenges our traditional way of seeing leadership as mainly an individual competence within a hierarchical setting. We therefore invite you to see leadership success as the result of the capacity of a collective to drive positive change, rather than the isolated skills of individuals.

When we recognize the possibility to change our concepts of leadership we are also able to recognize, and get excited about, multi-stakeholder partnerships as laboratories for new forms of organising human (inter)action through networks, movements, and emergent organisational structures. Leading change in such complex laboratories means to strengthen collective action wherever it is needed – and in whichever form it is needed to create collective impact.

From this viewpoint, agreements, goal-setting, joint strategic planning, governance and management structures become support structures rather than outcomes, leaving actors to move forward into the widespread collective action needed for the change envisaged. These are summarised in the effective partnering factors.

Leadership as the capacity of a collective

Whether we find ourselves in organisations or multi-stakeholder partnerships it requires collective energy and diversity of actors to not only create future, but also sustain a path towards success. Yet, much of the institutional world, and its logic of planning and implementation still focus on the individual leader rather than the system he or she operates in. With a system’s view of life, we could enable organisations to shift their thinking towards the co-creation of more life-enhancing – and hence more effective – patterns of collaboration at scale.

For the Agenda 2030 the joint capacity of leaders to become catalysts for positive change will become increasingly important. The personal capacity to lead is crucial, but it will – in multi-stakeholder partnerships – not automatically translate into more productive collective action. There are numerous examples of how individual efforts clash with existing structures, which then often leads to hindering, rather than advancing, efforts. Collective change comes about fastest in a web of relationships between people, who are committed to making a difference. Within such a web of relationships, leadership becomes a co-creative process that often begins with a small group of people and aims at a profound collective change.

If we use sustainability opportunities to learn to lead collectively and enhance the enormous potential that lies in multi-stakeholder partnerships as collaborative eco-systems, then we have shifted human evolution into a new definition of progress.

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