Stakeholder Engagement—Pt. 1:
There’s an unforgettable scene in the movie “Invictus”, which is the story of the particular chapter in Nelson Mandela’s earliest days as the new president of South Africa. In this segment of his journey, he vigorously protected and inspired the nation’s rugby team—eventually guiding them to win their first ever World Cup, on home turf, no less.
But in this particular scene, none of the above has taken place, and he has barely even moved into his new office as president. He is in a car with this chief of staff, on their way to a meeting, when she notifies him that at that very moment, the African National Congress (his party) was about to vote to abolish the all-white national rugby team, which to blacks was a lingering and bitter symbol of white supremacy. He literally asks the driver to turn around, and drive him to said meeting, to which he had not been invited, in order to persuade them to rethink their decision. His thesis was simple: “We are not going to do to them (whites), what they did to us. We ran our campaign on creating a rainbow coalition, so rather than being vindictive, we will be inclusive.” His commitment to said vision was unwavering.
His impromptu speech at the ANC a few minutes later was not well received. He was boo’ed, heckled, jeered. Clearly not the actions of a leader who is seeking to curry favour. But in their hearts, they knew he was right. And eventually, through relentless discussion and persuasion, he got his way. And more than that, he helped his nation rise from their knees, to their feet, and to the great surprise of the world, took them directly to a pivotal moment in their history.
I bring this up for a simple reason: In the next series of posts, which focus on the important subject of stakeholder engagement, I want to make a very important distinction: stakeholder engagement is not about courting favour. It is not about avoiding conflict. Nor is it about achieving perfect consensus before moving forward. You will never hear me use the word “socialize” to mean “achieve buy-in”. Nor will I use “stakeholder” as a verb. These terms that have recently come into vogue only encourage the tendency to nail-bite and poll everyone in one’s vicinity for their opinions and approval. Unproductive and unbecoming—especially to a leader.
Instead, I would like to start this series of posts on a solid footing. Any good leader needs to involve and listen to her stakeholders as they proceed with crafting—and then achieving—a vision. But consensus is a dangerous myth. And decision-making by committees is a disastrous approach. A leader must have intrinsic belief in her vision. Same goes for an agency presenting important creative work. Confidence, clarity, and commitment—balanced by an intuitive and listening ear. If we start on a faulty or weak premise, such as lack of real belief in one’s vision, and then start to “socialize” the work through an organization, then what will eventually come out the other side—will lack flavour, depth, or true excellence.
Conversely, when the vision and the resulting work are inspiring, then stakeholder engagement becomes a remarkable journey of bringing out the best in one’s peers and constituents, and, over time, creating an upward spiral of support and enthusiasm for the work. I’ve been privileged to experience this “virtuous cycle” on a number of occasions, and in the next posts we’ll explore what the key ingredients of that cycle might be.