Seizing the Moment:
How Leaders Lead by Convening Others

A governor's authority to convene is based on the office, not the person. But other leaders have the power to convene by virtue of their credibility and the social capital they have accumulated through the various leadership positions they have held.

The office of governor carries with it the authority or power to create a forum and bring people to it. Generally, when a governor convenes a meeting, people from across the board are willing to come. Other leaders also have this same capacity to bring people to the table. But to keep them there, and keep them participating, people must believe that the leader is not predisposed to one side or another and is trying to find a solution that all sides can embrace.

Convening can be done directly or indirectly. For some problems, I found that as governor I had to be in the room, at least some of the time. For example, when trying to build consensus among legislators or when high priority issues were extremely polarized, I personally brought the stakeholders together and mediated their discussions. In other situations, I found I could get people started and could charge them with developing a recommendation for action.

Sometimes a leader can convene a group and use a facilitator or mediator to assist them with the process. This approach allows a governor to play a role in setting the sideboards for the negotiations and keeping the parties at the table. For example, during a longstanding dispute between farm workers and growers in Oregon, the farm worker organization announced it was going to pull out of contracts with the growers, and the growers appealed to me for help. Because of my credibility with both sides, I decided to ask the parties to come to the table and try to find a solution. Rather than getting in the middle of the issue and mediating it myself, I asked an experienced mediator to play that role.

Those negotiations took 25 hours over seven days, and I could not have been available for that much time. I also knew from experience that when anyone from my office was present, including me, the parties inevitably tried to make their case to me and convince me to take sides, rather than using the time to work out the issues with the other parties. As convener, I played a different role in managing the dynamics around the issue, pushing people back toward the center and toward one another. As mediator, I could not have played that role and maintained credibility with both sides.

As governor, I could provide the problem solving structure—the safe space for interested and affected people to work together to solve a problem. When faced with the potential that coho salmon would be listed as endangered species, my staff and I decided that truly effective and lasting solutions would have to be acceptable to private landowners. I promoted the use of watershed councils around the state and gave those councils the responsibility and authority to handle the issue. Watershed councils are forums made up of diverse stakeholders—private landowners, sportsmen, commercial fishermen, timber and agricultural interests, public agencies and conservationists. Across the state, they have worked collaboratively to come up with solutions and monitor their implementation.

Providing the problem solving structure did not always mean that I, as governor, had to do the convening. I found I could also hand my convening power to another person, and strengthen that person's ability to carry out the role. With the Oregon Solutions program, for example, I appointed neutral conveners from local communities to lead teams of federal, state, local, and other government entities, businesses, non-profits, and citizens in collaborative processes aimed at finding solutions to community based problems.

Given the number, complexity, and divisiveness of the issues facing present day society, finding leaders who can play this convening role is growing in importance.

Yet today, our governance system largely removes individuals and communities from the problem-solving loop. Instead of engaging people, our system tends to polarize them by framing economic, environmental and social needs as separate and competing entities with mutually exclusive values. This in turn creates a politics of scarcity—a zero-sum situation in which there must always be a winner and a loser. The result is conflict, division and a sense of separateness, rather than a sense of community and common purpose.

To reverse this trend we must develop a more effective governance structure as well as more effective problem solving tools. And I believe the heart of any new governance structure must lie in the community—where citizens can engage directly in the problem solving process.

Our challenge is to find ways to bring about that direct engagement—not just in a legislative hearing room or through a political action committee, neither of which is particularly satisfying nor, in many cases, very effective. Rather, we must involve citizens in the very communities in which they live, where they have a tangible stake in the problem and in a way that offers them ownership in the solution.