Alaina Kleinbeck: Working better by working together

In a collaborative environment, teammates show and share their work and are valued for their expertise. iStock / Zinkevych

Leadership based on collaboration benefits everyone involved. And the work improves, too.

Early in my ministry, I planned a weekendlong spring retreat for the middle school students of my congregation. I’d prepared the Bible studies, carpools, rooming assignments, campfire worship times, games, late-night shenanigans and just enough free time to let everyone relax but stay out of trouble. A few dedicated volunteers helped me, but I was the one who knew the plan inside out.

Everything went swimmingly until early Saturday morning when my mom called to tell me that my grandmother had suffered a stroke and was very near the end of her life. Rationally, I was relieved that my grandmother, who’d had Alzheimer’s disease for years, would no longer suffer. Emotionally, I could barely stop crying to tell a concerned volunteer what had happened.

She and I quickly decided that I was in no shape to lead the retreat and that it was best for me to be with my family. We held an emergency meeting in which I handed off my Bible study and worship notes to one capable leader and all the logistical information to another. Then I stood up in front of the students, explained that I needed to be with my family and left those two volunteers in charge.

Having to leave that retreat to be with my family profoundly affected my ministry and the ways I think about leadership. Most importantly, it taught me that leadership is not a solo act but a deeply collaborative activity.

I fear we have missed that important lesson. My conversations with many staff at Christian institutions focus on the challenge of doing our work with others. We know we cannot make progress alone, but much of what we do and many of our institutions are not structured to perform well in collaboration.

Too often, our work is organized around a single dynamic or powerful leader. The leader’s strengths and weaknesses define the direction and outcomes of what other staff members are able to accomplish.

Staff excluded from the decision-making processes find their work to be irrelevant, contrived or isolated. They cannot articulate the reason and purpose for their work, let alone the mission of the institution. They don’t sufficiently understand what their colleagues are trying to accomplish to allow them to collaborate. In this culture, problems find scapegoats, not solutions.

Many of us find that we are lonely at work. Few understand how we actually spend our time, how we navigate challenges or why a particular victory is meaningful.

We call this “siloing” and bemoan it, but our models for leadership encourage an individual (often male, white and of a certain age) to take the helm and single-handedly whip things into shape. Sure, this leader might get the right people onto the bus, but they aren’t empowered to talk to one another and dream about where that bus might go.

This leadership mindset is strangling us, but we can change it.

Historically and intentionally minoritized people -- black and brown people, women, LGBTQ people and others -- know that they must collaborate to survive in the workplace; they carry an inherent wisdom that collaboration and community will bring success and joy to the work.

When you are excluded or your contributions are discounted, working on your own makes you more vulnerable to further exclusion. There is strength in finding teammates who understand your experience, who can be trusted to reinforce your place on the team, who see personal success as collective success.

In this collaborative mindset, all teammates are expected to show and share their work and are valued for their experience and expertise. The “leader” is a doula, guiding others as they deliver their contributions with confidence. The “leader” is also a co-contributor, equally expected to show her work, pull back the curtain and be vulnerable to the discomfort of improvement.

After I left that spring retreat, I never planned an event as a solo act again. Our retreats became team projects with a backup leader fully equipped to take over in my absence.

In my work as the director of the Thriving in Ministry Coordination Program, I strive to make collaboration fundamental to the structure of all my work. There are many practices and strategies that can improve the collaborative working environment.

Currently, I find myself homing in on two key practices: sharing and documenting my process and seeking feedback on my decisions. These practices are not busywork but opportunities to see beyond myself and develop the possibility for others to participate, collaborate and eventually succeed me in leading a program or project.

Sharing and documenting my process leads to two outcomes -- mutual learning and healthy collaborative relationships with and among colleagues. When I am listened to in a careful, empathetic way, I am more willing to do the same for others. Further, staff who listen to and learn from one another are prepared to adapt and grow when the inevitable staff departures occur.

Seeking feedback from my collaborators when I’m in the midst of making a decision about a project hones the idea and roots out weaknesses. Moreover, having leaned into my decision with me, they understand it for themselves. If I become unable to implement the decision or the project, they know it well enough to complete it.

In the end, our collaboration improves both us and our work.