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Assuming the role of leadership

In the past 6 months I have been spearheading a team of people who work in research, consulting, and the ICT sector. Our goal was to submit a project proposal to one of the largest research funding schemes worldwide. The team grew slowly at first we were only two people, myself and another researcher – my partner X. We did a lot of work to recruit other consortium members and to get money for consultants through an internal funding scheme at my university.  We gained partners and we lost partners. Other partners where difficult to find, such as our coordinator, who takes up a supporting role with a lot of organizational and administrative responsibility. These large-scale projects are a bureaucratic nightmare, and the coordination of such a project involves a lot of footwork that not many are willing to do. During the past 5 months we had to learn quickly about the field we were targeting; about the various EU policies involved; about the legal and administrative obligations, and we were constantly making decisions to assess our progress and to make changes if necessary.

Today we submitted our proposal; it was truly a collaborative effort. Most progress of proposal writing was made in the past two months and most intensely so in the past three weeks. I was in the center of it all and in constant communication with the other core members, working by email, on skype, and in telcos. With the exception of one person, I had no prior connection to the other partners, I had never met them, and only met partner X once at a busy conference last year.  It was remarkable to see this intense collaborative effort with total strangers. What drew us together was a combination of personal, institutional, but mostly economic reasons. Some were in the consortium because of their passion for the project idea, and the research and innovation it requires to materialize the project, others because of the potential funding of a 3 year project which will secure their job for that time, and others again because their institution has a policy to get on as many of these types of proposals as possible to increase chances of getting one funded.

In the past two weeks we worked feverishly all day until late into the night. All of us live in different countries spread all over Europe, as far as Greece in the East, Ireland in the North, and Spain in the South, and even all the way to Australia where one consortium member is staying for a while. We all communicated in English even with those who share the same mother tongue. We were functioning like an organism, emails being sent back and forth and skype chat pings were sometimes going off by the minute. Being in a leading position I was often answering three to four streams of email and skype pings at the same time, making decisions by the minute, giving input, and approving decisions made by others, often so extensively that the only time I had to work without interruption was either very late at night or very early in the morning. We all got used to each other’s availabilities because of the many time zones where people woke and slept at different times, and the time frames we could reach each other for immediate responses to urgent questions. We were all witnesses to our own potential as collaborative force that functioned united in the goal of producing a strong proposal that has a chance of being awarded the 2 million Euro funding.

The exception was one partner, who happened to be the one partner I started to develop the idea with when we first met at a conference last year. In hindsight, two months ago the first signs where showing but I was shrugging them off because I accepted the fact that in collaborations there is always someone who slacks, who does not carry their weight in contributing to the team effort. But then something started to happen within me, I got more and more concerned, I couldn’t sleep at night. I was still following my own process of releasing myself from backchat, but not much in writing mostly speaking and mostly while I was driving to work, at total of 90 minutes a day. The clock was ticking and every day the submission day moved close and we still had large pieces missing that were supposed be contributed by partner X. I tried to come up with solutions to the problem, because by now it was obvious that the proposal was not evolving properly and that partner X was not reasonable by claiming a large part of the budget for work that was not explained in detail. I noticed that there was a certain ‘stuckness’ on the side partner X sending out the same information times and again, even though we had specified that we needed more detail, more active participation, but the contributions remained underdeveloped and unexplained. Meanwhile, I was dealing with my emotional state, I felt cornered because I could clearly see that we were not in the position to write an adequate proposal, and more over, the other consortium members did not have the overview of the problem as much as I did with the exception of the consultants who were external to the consortium and only supporting a specific part of the writing process. Some consortium members did not have the technical background, others stayed out of it because their personal contribution was their main focus. The situation escalated within the consortium and within me where I experienced myself in anger and fear at the same time. It was as if a part of me was pushing me forward because I was in a situation of having to actively participate in what I experienced as a conflict. Habitually I stayed out of conflicts, I literally remove myself from the situation or I find another way to ‘balance’ the situation so that the conflict disappears. Such was my mind program. Here, I was too involved to give up on the project because by now I had too much responsibility towards the university and the people I/ we, had recruited. What to do?


Since partner X was the original member of the consortium the other partners saw partner X and myself as those who are in charge of the evolution of the consortium and the proposal. The coordinator eventually told us to work out the problem between ourselves. It also did not help that partner X represented a prestigious, high quality research institution in Europe whereas I work in a rather unknown and young research university with a growing reputation. I spoke to those on the project who I felt had more experience than me and asked for advice on what to do. I also spoke to the research facilitators to get yet another view from the university. I noticed that there is an entire culture build up around these types of consortiums with a set of etiquettes on how to behave and proceed as a consortium member. Based on the advice I received I tried to come up with solutions, one of my better ones was to get an additional partner on board who could fill in the pieces that partner X was not providing. But of course, our budget was quite limited to accommodate the cost of yet another partner, which meant that in any way partner X had to reduce ‘person month’ costs as well as the cost for the hardware that they were bringing to the project. Because I actually believed in my solution, I proceeded to find another partner who I placed on stand-by. In a telco with the coordinator, the university’s research facilitator who I dragged into the situation as back-up, and my partner X, I proposed my idea but the result was the same as before, it was unacceptable to partner X. The underlying fear that I was experiencing was that if I were to tell partner X to leave the consortium the coordinator would stop participating at which point the whole consortium would fall apart. My fear was confirmed when one of the consultants mentioned that a potential leave by the coordinator was implied by one of the last emails that were sent out in relation to the conflict situation. The counter fear of that was if I were to proceed as is, I would knowingly submit a proposal that would not stand a chance of being successful in the reviews and all effort was wasted.

When partner X started to participate less and less in the proposal writing process, my personal communication also diminished because I felt powerless and feared being attacked by partner X if I were to voice my concerns directly. I was also angry and feared that my anger would come through in the conversation. So I managed all communication with partner X via group emails or telcos, avoiding conversations alone. All of this was deliberate because I saw that I did not want to take responsibility for the situation, I did not want to assume the role of a leader who makes decisions that may fail and could lead to me standing accused of the failed situation by all the other consortium members. I was afraid of their wrath.

This realization transpired three weeks ago during a weekend where I alternated work with sessions of self-forgiveness because I had to find out what was going on inside of me. I had to stop my self-limitations of believing that I had no way out. I had to make a decision, there was no one left to make a decision for me. I had to take the risk to let go and trust myself. The following Monday, I got up very early to be able to reach the Greek coordinator first thing in the morning, taking the 2 hour time difference into consideration. I had a calm word with her to find out where she was standing, I explained the beginning of the project, the evolution and my investment, and gave background she did not have before. The result of the conversation was that I was assured that the coordinator would not leave the consortium if partner X were no longer a consortium member. This bit of communication gave me the backbone to face partner X. Equally calm, I phoned to have a one to one conversation for the first time in weeks. While we were both calm, the conversation did not bring any new developments, partner X could not or would not see the problem. I had to make a decision, there and then. After another phone call to the new partner because I wanted to be absolutely sure that this partner was the right choice and could take over, I phoned partner X again and ended the collaboration. Within hours everything changed.

Three weeks before submission of a type of proposal that many institutions will prepare months and sometimes even years for, I kicked out a core partner and acquired a new one. The new partner immediately assumed his role and was a complete match to the project and to our way of working. Within less than a  week we had more information for the proposal than we had received from partner X in a month. My decision was right on, I actually made a decision that was best for all, overcoming my own fears of responsibility and leadership and by placing myself into a situation were I had no choice of running away but to move forward beyond the conception and patterns of how I saw myself.

There were many more valuable lessons in these past six months that I could write about. Just briefly, the breakthrough came with standing up to my abusive supervisor who used coercion and cognitive dissonance in his behaviour to staff members. Because I made this step and took the abuse to the top level of the university, I stepped out of the limited position I was in and could take the administrative route to become project lead and even get grant money to pay for the consultants. Now looking back on this time that was so densely packed with lessons, the main element that they all had in common is that I did not give up on myself. I stepped out of patterns of self-victimisation that I have previously used to limit myself and to conjure up feelings of self-pity, powerlessness, and inferiority.  I learned to trust that how I was assessing the situation was accurate which showed me that I actually have the skill of common sense where in the past I have used reason to find ways to diminish my ability to see things for what they are.

Another valuable lesson was that I saw the veil of emotion and how it forms an invisible wall that I have to step through with the only tool that I have which is self-forgiveness, to see what this ‘emotional wall’ consists off.  There are still many areas where I have to work on to move myself passed the veil of emotion. I have now seen an overview of what is it like when I so clearly emerge on the other side with my physical environment reflecting this self-movement.

Regardless of whether the project is funded or not, I will be able to benefit from the experience in the months to come to walk through related points and programs that were opened up in the course of the past six months, and this is what I look forward to.


“Assuming the role of leadership” – how did I get here:


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