You might be forgiven for thinking that a blog that draws on Darwin’s theories of evolution would be all about competition, but is that the only characteristic needed to survive and thrive? Other thought-leaders, including Richard Dawkins, who wrote about ‘The Selfish Gene’, advocate an individualistic ‘heroic’ approach to change. For Dawkins, ‘selfishness’ is a behaviour that increases the chances of survival and justifies the promotion of competition and individualism in politics and economics, as well as in social and personal life.
But, co-operation and interdependence are also important for successful evolution. Darwin himself notes in The Origin of Species; ‘...in the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate... most effectively have prevailed’. And Dawkins is also clear that the practice of exchanging things with others for mutual benefit (reciprocity or – perhaps more simply – co-operation) underpins successful evolution.
I was reminded of this when working with senior NHS leaders in the north-west recently At the final event in our nine-month leadership development programme, we staged a simulation: delegates were allocated to different groups, all with a different, and sometimes conflicting, interest in one of the most challenging health problems we currently face – ‘How can we develop effective, high-quality and person-centred services for growing numbers of frail older people?’ As far as possible, groups represented services across the health spectrum, including social care, housing, the commercial sector, charities, sports centres and even the Department for Work and Pensions. Faced with a challenge that no single organisation could address effectively, that presented a real threat to the survival of the system as a whole, what would the leaders do?
Well, they co-operated. They shared information, listened more than they talked, showed curiosity and courage, took risks and built trust. As one participant commented: ‘It wasn’t a real situation but the partnerships we developed were real.’
Delegates have since told us that they gained a lot from the exercise because it gave them the opportunity to look outside their own environments, where they were leaders, at the bigger system, where they were players. Collaboration extended beyond the boundaries of their immediate team, beyond their organisations, to the system in which they worked.
In Darwin’s terms, individual evolutionary success may have initially been linked to having the most appropriate tools, but it was only through sharing these that the conditions emerged to allow a whole system to benefit.
In our daily interactions as leaders, sharing should be motivated by recognition of ‘the other’, and seeing their wellbeing as connected to, and supporting, our own. For our leadership programme delegates, survival as individuals meant recognising that their futures were linked, and that supporting each other created better outcomes for everyone. Or, as Andrew Carnegie put it,
‘...the ability to work together toward a common vision, the ability to direct individual accomplishments toward organisational objectives... is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.’
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