THE JOURNAL OF PEOPLE + STRATEGY
Rallying Stakeholders in a Polarized World | People + Strategy | Winter 2024
January 8, 2024
By embracing two words that don’t appear in an MBA syllabus, the director of a Midwest nonprofit finds success in coalition building in a polarized world with nontraditional partners. Here are the key lessons he’s learned over his 30-year career.
By Hans Voss
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.
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.
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.
2. Let Your Stakeholders’ Points of View Shape Your Message
I know this may seem counterintuitive. As leaders, we’re supposed to create clarity for those around us by laying out a clear strategy and a clear “how-to,” right? But in a world of independent stakeholders, digging in with your own point of view can backfire. Do you want to be right, or do you want to deliver on your goals? People’s opinions on both the why and the how of your goals can healthily reshape your messaging and drive better results.
A 70-year-old pipeline crosses five miles of open water in Lake Michigan. It’s called Line 5, and it transports 23 million gallons of crude oil daily. It’s just about the hottest environmental issue in Michigan because a leak would be catastrophic for the Great Lakes and the people whose economic survival and lifestyles depend on them. The risk is real. Already, there have been dozens of leaks in the upland part of the pipeline. And in 2018, there was a scary near-miss when a ship’s anchor struck an underwater section.
When our organization first learned about Line 5 in 2013, we knew that Michiganders across the political spectrum would be concerned because if there is one thing that unites people here, it’s the Great Lakes. So, we set out to organize a campaign.
First in were environmentalists who, in addition to concerns about water quality, were motivated by climate change. Millions of people in Michigan are working hard to transition the economy to renewable energy, so the idea of antiquated fossil fuel infrastructure continuing to operate while threatening the waters we hold dear—especially because we have other alternatives—was an immediate rally point for one constituency.
Next, we brought on local government officials worried about drinking water. Then, we involved anglers, boaters and tourism-related people concerned about threats to their livelihoods.
Another crucial ally in the campaign to shut down Line 5 has been the Native American tribes. Their historical relationship to the lakes is fundamental to their culture, history and way of life—not to mention their treaty rights, which empower them to fish those threatened waters. The tribes have been out front on the issue, holding rallies, taking legal action and partnering with other groups.
With these coalitions, it seemed that everyone in Michigan was talking about Line 5, including some who thought having a pipeline in the lakes was just fine. But some of those pipeline proponents controlled important committees in the state legislature, so while we were doing well with the public, in the capital we weren’t making much progress. Clearly, we needed more voices.
That’s when we started the Great Lakes Business Network, which, as the name suggests, is a group of business owners willing to stand up and fight for the environment. It’s had a huge impact on the debate over Line 5 because employers have a special kind of influence.
As we grew the network, we realized that our values of honest and sincere relationships had to be central—this couldn’t be just about environmentalism or fishing access or even drinking water. Some companies weren’t comfortable talking about climate change. Others were more cautious in general. So, we had to hammer out a common message framework that we could all agree with. Lots of listening. Suspending judgment. Focusing on our shared love for the lakes.
And that focused our messaging on making the economic case. A University of Michigan study found that the Great Lakes support 1.3 million jobs that generate $82 billion in wages annually, which resonated across interest groups. The more we focused on the economics, the stronger our message and the more people we could reach.
The Line 5 campaign is going strong. We have an incredible range of public support. The governor and the attorney general along with a coalition of tribes and conservation groups have filed suit to close the line, and we are awaiting a decision in the courts.
3. Truly Understand the Position of Those Across the Table
In my younger days in this work, I was invited to speak to the United Tribes of Michigan, a group composed of the leaders of Michigan’s 13 federally recognized Native American tribes. That day, the issue on the table was land use and transportation planning—specifically, how to preserve natural land and invest in thriving, walkable downtowns.
My presentation was about the importance of regional collaboration in achieving these goals. After giving a little background, I asked the tribe leaders to join our effort. I finished my pitch, and the chairman of the group looked at me silently for what seemed like a solid minute and then politely but firmly said, “Are you aware that we are sovereign nations?”
Clearly, I had missed the mark. Whatever my intentions walking into that room, I hadn’t asked about their perspective, hadn’t listened, hadn’t taken the time to understand the cultural or legal context of those I was hoping to engage. It was a low point in my career—a learning opportunity.
As leaders, we’re in a hurry to get things done, to demonstrate impact and deliver results. But control is an illusion— our stakeholders come to the table with their own agendas, history and deep-held motivations. To go fast later, we have to first take the time to understand who we are talking to. A lot gets written about being an empathetic leader and showing empathy to others, but I would argue that not enough has been said about a leader establishing empathy and understanding as a two-way street with each set of stakeholders. Be humble—to avoid getting humbled. Foster a relationship and establish trust before making your pitch.
I have learned that external coalition and partner development work can be valuable to your internal culture, too. When treating people outside your organization with respect becomes standard practice, it happens naturally on the inside too. It’s not the executive director or CEO standing up in front of the staff, discussing core values and how everyone needs to embrace them. Nope, we’ve all had enough of that. It’s the organic development of a culture of sincerity by demonstrating it day in and day out.
The Judgment-to-Love Shift
I know my “replace judgment with love” mantra is keenly personal. But I am also equally convinced that it can be a game changer.
How can you create honest, respectful relationships if you are harboring judgment? And what about love? Well, we all have our own way of feeling and expressing it. I submit that even if it is never spoken aloud, when you carry love in your heart, people feel it. Your colleagues feel it.
Rallying radically diverse stakeholders is tough, demanding work. But for leaders today, it’s the job within the job. We live in a polarized world. We can succumb to that and settle into camps of “us and them,” or we can shift tactics in how we unite others to achieve great things.
For my own part, I am working to become mindful of my judgments about people and their behavior. I’ve realized that I can assign motive and meaning to what are actually insignificant turns of events. Sometimes my opinions are surprisingly harsh. And, I’ve thought long and hard about how I judge myself. Can I replace those judgments with a simple thought of love for whom or what I’m passing judgment on? As a result of this focus, I believe I am creating more honest relationships, particularly with those nontraditional partners who think so differently from me.
I have been working on the judgment-to-love shift for the better part of a year. I have a long way to go, but I plan on staying the course.
I close this out by encouraging you to consider your own judgments. Are they interfering with your ability to have authentic relationships in your work? With the communities within and around your organization? How about with your family and friends? My working theory is the more you reduce your judgments of others, the closer you can be to them. And if you can replace those judgments with sincerity and love, who knows what’s possible?
Hans Voss is the executive director of the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities in Traverse City, Mich. Groundwork was established in 1995 to empower people to create a better future with sustainable local solutions that create a clean environment, strong economy and healthy communities. Learn more at groundworkcenter.org.