During our April trip to The Netherlands, I was fascinated by the extensive water management skills the Dutch developed over decades of draining and reclaiming land. After learning that 25% of the country is below and 50% is at sea level it’s very clear why this region of Europe is known as “the lowlands.”

Polders are central to the Dutch water management system. These are the sections of land developed after dikes have been built around the marsh or lake and the water pumped out (by windmill before motorized pumps.) The land then sinks as the water is removed. Many roadways are built on the dikes. So as you’re driving down the road you’ll often have a polder field on one side 3 – 4 meters below you and a canal on the other side almost at road level. If the dikes aren’t well maintained and water isn’t constantly pumped out, the polder would revert back to a marsh or lake.

Maintaining this extensive system of 30,000 polders and the intricate web of canals can only happen with a huge amount of cooperation. You can’t keep your property dry by yourself. Everyone needs to cooperate. During the Middles Ages warring cities in the same polder were forced to cooperate to maintain their polders or they’d all be flooded. This is a very early example of what today is called “coopetition” with companies both competing and cooperating.

I am ruminating about this on a plane back home after facilitating a customized version of our Leading @ the Speed of Change workshop and planning session. This one also featured “moose hunting” exercises to identify and address key issues (adapted from our Moose on the Table approach.) The Client is a very large healthcare organization going through major changes to its structure. They’re moving from a very centralized, top-down structure to a matrix organization with local zones having more operating autonomy while supported by centralized corporate functions like IT, HR, Finance, and Procurement. Medical and administrative staff are also jointly sharing planning, decision making, and operations to a much greater degree than the old structure with its departmental silos.

This increasingly common organization structure aims to balance local operating autonomy with standardized corporate processes and support systems. It’s a difficult and tricky balance requiring high levels of Emotional Intelligence and the leadership “soft skills” of influence, cooperation, and teamwork. This session was a first announcement of the change to the top 130 senior executives. The organization is in the beginning stages of clarifying its evolving roles and responsibilities and filling in the boxes on its emerging new organization chart. Anxiety, uncertainty, and stress levels are high as some people are losing their old jobs and don’t know where they are going to fit into the new organization.

As we discussed the changes, the challenges, and the choices to lead, follow, or wallow, one emerging theme was the importance of staying focused on the greater purpose. Everyone is here to serve patients, families, and communities. Like the Dutch Polder Model, strong leaders continually refocus their teams and organizations beyond conflicting internal priorities, overlapping roles, and jockeying for position. We’re all in this together to serve a greater shared purpose. That will keep us all safe and dry.