Eight “Permission Slips” for Collaborative Leaders - Bob Woodruff Foundation

Eight “Permission Slips” for Collaborative Leaders

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I’m going to get touchy-feely for a moment.

Because it’s important, and I care about you.

I’ll first share what I’ve personally observed about my last four and a half years working in the veterans space: The changemakers in this space are passionate, and their connection with the work is personal. Maybe they served. Maybe a loved one served. Maybe they see injustice or a missed opportunity in a community’s failure to reintegrate returning veterans. Whatever the case may be, even if our contributions are professional and we have great boundaries, most of us come to this work because we care deeply. So it’s no surprise that we push ourselves hard, and take it personally when we fail to see progress. But here’s the thing: We’re only human. And humans can burn out.

I’m a sucker for the wisdom of Dr. Brené Brown, author, professor, and leading shame and resilience researcher. One of the tips that stuck with me from her book, Dare to Lead, was the idea that it can help to give ourselves permission to think, say, and do what we need to take care of ourselves while we get the job done. Dr. Brown even has her teammates write out permission slips to themselves and others so they can roll up their sleeves, work together, and no longer worry about revealing vulnerabilities. So, without further ado, I’m writing you several permission slips to normalize these common areas of vulnerability or self-doubt in collaborative work.


You have permission to not know where to start. In fact (OK, in my informed opinion), it would be weird if you knew exactly where to start. The challenges you’re trying to address are complex, and even systemic; if they weren’t, they probably wouldn’t require such intentional collaboration.

Maybe you’re aware that the veterans in your community would benefit from more collaboration, or are part of a collaborative that could use more structure, but you aren’t sure what model is best. You can take some time to assess whether you’re “ready for collective impact” using this tool, and explore other collaborative models here.

Or maybe you’re joining an existing collective impact effort, and want to get a foundation in collective impact theory before digging into the work. In that case, CIF has you covered with their “Getting Started” resource kit.


You have permission to learn as you go. To be honest, learning-while-doing is pretty much the only way to get things done in collaborative work. It’s like the difference between taking a written drivers’ test and actually learning to drive. When the rubber hits the road, you’ll encounter friction inherent in the work, and forces beyond your control that will require you to adapt. That’s not a bad thing; it’s just part of the ride.

Recognize that you’ll be learning not just new collaborative practices–you’ll be learning unique mindsets, too: adaptive problem-solving, investing in relationships, and more (laid out nicely in this article).


You have permission not to be in control. Yes, even as a leader. The collaborative environment presents unique opportunities and challenges for leaders. In a collaborative, there’s no formal authority. Nobody is boss, and nobody can make someone else do something. Collaborators make commitments and contributions voluntarily, and while you can establish a cultural norm of mutual accountability, your options for enforcement are limited.

So what do you do when your traditional leadership strategies don’t work? You learn new ones. The bonus of adapting your leadership style to a new environment? These strategies can be repurposed in your day job.


You have permission to ask for help. This can look different depending on what you need, but for a lot of collaborative leaders, inviting fellow collaborators to lead working groups is a way to divide-and-conquer your mission-related priorities. Smaller groups are more agile, and can report out progress during your larger meetings. CIF offers a toolkit for organizing working groups in a collective impact effort. Sometimes it looks like reaching out to a collaborative in a different city to ask what worked for them. Sometimes it means aligning your collaborative with a local collaborative working on an overlapping issue, like aging, substance use, or employment.


You have permission not to do it all. As obvious as that might sound, there are simply too many issues facing veterans for a collaborative to tackle at once. If we bite off more than we can chew, we risk choking.

Defining the problem(s) at hand, setting the scope of your work and boundaries around it, and prioritizing projects are all crucial to making progress. In collective impact, that process is called setting a “common agenda.”

In your collaborative’s first year, it’s not realistic to expect to end veteran homelessness, set up a veterans’ court, measurably increase access to mental health services, fix veteran and military spouse underemployment, and streamline access to caregiver benefits. By defining the boundaries of the problem, you enable the focus required to make a real impact in priority areas.


You have permission to wish meetings were more productive. Before you survive another meeting that should have been an email, or an agendaless behemoth that has you guzzling coffee to stay awake, take a peek at Collective Impact Forum’s ideas for designing engaging meetings. True story: One of our Local Partners attended this workshop at CIF’s Collective Impact Convening and implemented a collaborative exercise from it a couple weeks later; by the end of the meeting, the collaborative had set their priorities for the year ahead. Good stuff.


You have permission to celebrate even the smallest wins. Real talk: The issues you’re facing are complex. Affecting systems change is hard. You’re going to be here a while. It’s really easy (and, honestly, quite reasonable) to get overwhelmed, or frustrated, or feel like you haven’t made any difference. But look closely at your progress, and keep track of small wins. You’ve had a few months of regular attendance at collaborative meetings? Win. Your partners are getting increased referrals from fellow partners? Win. A new stakeholder joined your collaborative table? Win. Take a moment to appreciate these moments, and celebrate them with your collaborative.

Celebrating small wins is just one tactic to help you sustain momentum. Collective Impact Forum shares more ideas in this presentation and worksheet on sustaining collective impact. Just remember: It’s a marathon, not a sprint. There. I gave you my only sports analogy.


You have permission to embrace the tension. Even if your whole collaborative is on the same page about the problem, you may be of a dozen minds about how to solve it. And if you’ve built anything with a team (or have a partner), you’ll know it’s entirely possible to argue about something when, ultimately, you’re saying the same thing. The tension that sometimes makes us feel uncomfortable in group work settings can actually be productive. Collective Impact Forum has an awesome guide about polarities and tension. Check it out and “chair fly” how you might turn your next disagreement into a productive conversation.

What permission slips will you write yourself going forward? How about your collaborators?