At a recent event celebrating 20 years of working with partners to strengthen Michigan’s local food and farming economy, I surveyed the crowd. All kinds of people were there. Farmers. Entrepreneurs. Community organizers. School food service workers. Public health experts. Republicans, Democrats and staunch Independents. It was a special gathering, the kind that only happens when something truly incredible has been achieved over a number of years through collective action and unyielding dedication.
As various speakers reflected on their experiences with the mission and its grittier execution moments over time, one of the leaders offered a one-word summary of the reason such a diverse group has been so effective: “sincerity.”
That lone word—which appears in none of our collateral or our standard talk tracks—really hit me. For nearly 30 years I have been working to build broad-based coalitions to achieve public interest goals and, over time, change systems to help communities become more resilient. In this line of work, you try to bring together “nontraditional partners”—a term, simply put, that means people from different walks of life. They have distinct cultures and sometimes starkly contrasting political views, but they share a common goal, and their different constituencies broaden your base.
While that’s always been part of nonprofit leadership, what I’m learning from my friends across the business community is that it’s an intensifying part of almost every executive’s job today. Stakeholders are vocal and often polarized, yet to build resilient organizations, we leaders need to rally more of them to our banner than just those who start out agreeing with us.
About the same time that the “sincerity” point struck home with me, I had been grappling quietly with a deeply personal leadership idea: “Replace judgment with love.” I know that’s a big one, especially in a professional journal like this, but hang with me here because it’s relevant to this story, and it may be helpful in your leadership.
These two traits—sincerity and love—are both intensely personal and incredibly challenging for any leader. (And frankly, I had to think about whether I wanted to write about them publicly.) Sincerity and love have forced me to become more aware of my own judgments and how they often directly conflict with my desire to be a more loving person. If you lead others, I want to acknowledge how hard judgments can be to contain.
And the ideas of sincerity and love often don’t come up in discussions about how to create alignment among different stakeholders. We executives are often most comfortable with clear metrics, analytical skills and defined approaches. But there is a powerful emotional component to leadership that sometimes gets overlooked—and it is crucial for success when you are building coalitions that, at first blush, seem unlikely to succeed.
Here are three examples of coalition building in a polarized world that may serve as reminders that how we lead is who we are.
1. Start Small, Embrace Complexity
Back to sincerity and farming. In northern Lower Michigan, agriculture is a central part of our culture, economy and history. The soil is good. The Great Lakes extend the growing season. As a result, we grow a wide range of fruits and vegetables. In fact, Michigan is second only to California in crop diversity. But farmers are increasingly squeezed by global commodity markets, and there is a real struggle to keep the family farm viable.
Our organization worked to open up new markets so farmers can sell directly to consumers, local restaurants, food pantries, grocery stores and schools. It’s the schools that have really taken off, so much so that Michigan is now a nationwide leader in the farm-to-school movement.
We started farm-to-school work 20 years ago in one elementary school in Traverse City, a bustling town on the shore of Lake Michigan. We arranged for a local farmer to come to the lunchroom and talk about potatoes and how to grow them, and then serve them up to the students. The kids loved them. The teachers were startled to see most kids skip the pizza lunch and dig into the steaming-hot baked potatoes.
This pizza beatdown day ignited a movement for locally sourced lunches in schools across our region. That movement grew into a broad-based campaign resulting in a statewide program. Today, the legislature allocates $9.3 million annually to schools specifically for the purchase of Michigan-grown fruits and vegetables. The result: Hundreds of thousands of pounds of locally grown food from nearly 200 participating farms have been delivered to lunchrooms serving over half a million kids.
As you can imagine, we worked closely with farmers. But here’s the thing about farmers: They are by no means of one mind. Their worldviews and their farming practices are all over the map. What ties them together is their fierce independence, which can show up as skepticism. But we kept at it. We listened to farmers’ needs and made the program as practical and usable as possible. Like any businesspeople, farmers need predictability, which in agriculture requires planning ahead. So, we helped schools forecast what they wanted to put on the school lunch plates, which allowed farmers to plan their planting schedules.
We also worked closely with teachers, school administrators and food service staff, who have tight budgets and strict food safety parameters. We asked those farmers and school officials (and just about everyone else under the sun) to join us in convincing the state to fund it. We worked with conservative legislators from rural areas, liberal legislators from big cities, and everyone in between. We listened to their priorities, made our case for farm-to-school, and, in the end, we achieved rare bipartisan support, including developing true champions on both sides of the aisle. Regardless of their political leanings, they saw the benefit to the agricultural economy and to kids’ health. We listened. We formed trusting relationships. And in the end, we built a powerful coalition for bold action.