Lessons In How To Demonstrate The Value of Collaboration

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There is a lot to be learned about leadership from traditions. One such lesson is apparent from the annual Returns Day Celebration in Georgetown, Del.-purported to be the only such celebration that still occurs each election year.

The notion of Returns Day dates to the time there was no technology available to project the winners of elections based on exit polls, nor to instantaneously broadcast election results.

So on the Thursday following the election everyone gathered in the county seat where the results of the election were announced on the courthouse steps. Following the announcement of the winners, both candidates climbed into the same horse drawn carriage for a parade through the town.

The climax? At the end of the parade the candidates met on the courthouse steps for the symbolic burying of a hatchet-an open and public expression of their commitment to put the campaign and their disagreements behind them and work together for the good of the people.

Despite modern technology, The Returns Day tradition still continues in this bucolic mid-Atlantic community. The people will still gather this year to see the candidates ride in horse drawn carriages (and the occasional antique automobile), side by side, smiling and waving to the crowd. The bitterness and disappointment one might expect to see will be replaced by open expressions of thanks to the citizens who voted.

When the parade ends, the crowd will gather in front of the courthouse to watch as a gold plated hatchet is buried in sand. And a ceremonial case will safely conceal the hatchet until it emerges in the next election, only to be buried again once the people have spoken.

There is much to be learned from this tradition of symbolically burying the hatchet at the end of a long hard campaign. A campaign where both sides have expressed their views and agreed to disagree, to succumb to the will of the majority and commit to working towards common goals. In doing so they bookmark things where they were on Election Day, letting the past remain in the past and looking to the future together.

Admittedly this is a somewhat idealistic perspective on the symbolism that surrounds this Returns Day Celebration, but there are at least three important lessons to be gleaned from it that every leader can apply to improve their effectiveness:

1. Agreeing to disagree is a normal part of leadership, whether in politics, government, business, or the non-profit world. Leaders know that once a decision has been made in the context of the agreed upon and clearly defined rules, it is more important to support the outcome than it is to debate the process.

2. Symbolic public gestures have significant value. They reinforce the confidence of those the leader serves and send a clear message that the leader understands their responsibility, even when the path chosen may not be the one they advocated or personally support.

3. Leadership is not just the job of the leader. When people who have not been chosen to lead step forward and show their commitment to the work that needs to be done, it becomes easier for others to buy in and help create the future.

The Bottom Line

Many traditions offer insights into leadership that can help to transform modern organizations. The symbolic burying of the hatchet at the Returns Day Celebration is but one example of how credit union leaders can visibly communicate the importance of collaboration to their followers. Effective leaders constantly look for ways to show their people the value of putting the past in the past, of putting a bookmark where they have been and focusing on where they want to go. The long-term rewards will always outweigh the short-term discomfort.

Action Steps

1. Take a close look at your credit union. Are there any hatchets that need to be symbolically buried in order to allow people to move ahead? If so, initiate the process of making it happen immediately (if not sooner!)

2. Pay close attention to the conflicts that persist within your organization. Lead your people to confront and deal with them so that everyone can refocus on the work that needs to be done by moving beyond the style and personality issues that often stifle progress.

3. Regularly engage in efforts to learn from traditions that have passed the test of time in your community. There are subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) messages hidden in the things that last-perhaps within them lies something that will connect with your team to enable them to take your credit union to the next level.

Dr. Michael Hudson, Ph.D. is a speaker and facilitator who has more than 20 years of "in-the-trenches" experience helping leaders become more effective and build organizations that last. He is the author of "Revitalize Now (before it's too late)." For info:www.creditunionleader.com.

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