Invitational Leadership at its best

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Twenty-five years of experience working in Haiti (living here most of this time) has turned me into a critic of top-down development and management. Leadership that invests in developing “expert” solutions for other people — who have not been invited into the decision-making process — to execute fails at creating a desirable future.

Good leaders know that engagement is key to a productive and dynamic work environment. Work gets done better by people who are fully investing themselves — their energy, talents, skills and creativity. Our core investment should be in creating conditions that bring this type of engagement.

A few weeks ago a large NGO in Haiti invited me to facilitate a two-day open space meeting. Their purpose was to invite input and create a culture of partnership and engagement for a major ten-year reforestation project. They are joining a growing movement of advocates for Invitational Leadership.

Invitational Leadership is about sharing power and authority and inviting others into process of developing the vision.

Stoll and Fink in Changing Our Schools: Linking School Effectiveness and School Improvement (1996) describe its four key features:

  1. Optimism — the belief in people’s untapped potential for growth and development
  2. Respect — the recognition that everyone is a unique individual
  3. Trust — the need to trust others and, as leaders, to behave with integrity
  4. Intention — to be actively supportive and encouraging to others to act with you.

I believe that Invitational Leadership is key in addressing both local problems in Haiti and the global crisis of unengaged and disengaged employees and stakeholders. Click here for studies in the US by Gallup.

For some time the leaders of the above mentioned NGO have been in conversation with Haitian and French governments, and others, about how this reforestation project could be a part of Haiti’s contribution to addressing climate change. They have a staff member with a PhD in forestation and years of experience working in Haiti who has created a thoughtful concept paper. They’ve invested time, energy and financial resources in developing the beginning of a comprehensive plan.

But their leadership concluded that it wasn’t enough. They decided to make every effort possible to invite more input and involvement among experts and other stakeholders. They wanted their entire team to help create a culture of invitation.

Over the course of two days about 40 people delved deep into discussions, primarily in Haitian-Creole, on topics proposed by participants around the goal of a successful agro-forestry project. Participants included the head of cabinet of Haiti’s Ministry of Environment, representatives from NGOs (Haitian, French, and US); WorldBank; InterAmerican Development Bank; grassroots organizations; along with individual Haitian farmers and even a Haitian woman who sells charcoal. I delighted in watching their experts, who have invested so much time and energy, invite ideas and involvement from others present.

The Country Director of the organization hosting the meeting set the stage in the opening remarks: “We have to create a strong platform of collaboration. We want to build productive partnerships. We want to create a culture of engagement.”

I draw inspiration from their example and I’m excited to see how this project unfolds. I hope this is a signal that Invitational Leadership is catching on. It can’t solve all of Haiti’s (and the world’s) problems, but in order to begin making a true difference we need to throw away the old model of top-down development and management. To find real solutions we need “experts” in the same room as stakeholders, we need to discuss, invite, and listen.

John Engle, Haiti Partners co-director

If you’re interested in learning more, here are a few resources and networks that my Haiti Partners co-workers and I have found helpful in nurturing Invitational Leadership: Open Space Technology, World Blu, and Barrett Values Centre.

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