Partnerships are a Good Thing… Perhaps.

31st October 2023

What is, sometimes, the problem with partnerships? For ESAE, Zhanna Kovalchuk, Executive Director of the European Society of Sports Traumatology Knee Surgery and Arthroscopy, reflects on the topic and tells the readers of Boardroom a little tale.

We like to think that people just decide to be partners, because the sun is shining, and they feel at ease with the world. When it’s like that, what is better than doing something by yourself? And why doing it with others! Hmmm…

Perhaps we should look a little more closely at the real differences in partnerships, say, coalitions. Because people form partnerships for many reasons, and only some are good reasons.

Let me tell you a little historical tale. Like so many others, it comes from the ancient Greeks.

For many hundreds of years, the Greek city states – they called them Polis (singular), or Polisea (plural) – were locked together in competition.

At every level, they competed. They competed at sport, in the various Games, and they competed in commerce and in culture. They competed just about everything.

And when the competition became intense,  they stopped talking to each other, and started fighting.

As a result, they saw each other as strangers. No Corinthian could ever be mistaken for an Athenian or a Theban. And no Spartan could think of themselves as a Chalcidian. Perish the thought! They were so very different from each other, you see.

They also saw each other as inferior, and they were adamant on proving their point,  in all these different ways.

And this would have continued forever, if 500BC hadn’t happened.

What happened then?

Well, the Persians arrived under Darius, to punish what he — and he alone — saw as “the Greeks”. Something very large and dangerous had suddenly appeared from outside that little Greek world of squabbling and competition.

And this suddenly showed them how very similar they all were, and how different they all were from the Persians. They suddenly realized that they all spoke Greek, and could all read each others’ writing. And they suddenly realized they all looked alike, and felt alike.

They had never noticed this before, that they were all Greek.

Darius and the Persians might have made them turn their backs, and squabble all the harder.

Biologists have a name for this, it’s called ‘displacement activity’, and it’s what happens when you catch a crab in the open on the beach, and it can’t decide (because it doesn’t have a comprehensive intellect) whether the large thing that’s approaching is just a large meal for the crab, or whether it’s a large thing looking for a crab-sandwich.

Zhanna’s contribution is connected with her participation at ESAE’s session: “Strength in Numbers: The benefits of coalition building”, which took place in Luxembourg on 18 November, 2022. During that session, association aeaders from various sectors shared thoughts and examples on how building coalitions with other associations, external stakeholders like NGOs, foundations, or even news agencies, or even coordinating with traditional competitors, can help organizations increase their outreach and maximize efficiencies.

ESAE is always on the lookout for inspiring case studies that can benefit the entirety of the association community. Do you have a story to share? Get in touch at

Because of that tension, displacement activity becomes the crab’s safest course, 

until the large thing gets closer, and the crab can decide whether running away or attacking is the sensible thing to do. So it pretends to eat in a frenzy, although there’s nothing to eat.  And this pretend-feeding keeps it busy, and thereby prevents it from doing anything  that will attract the attention of the large thing 

(if there really was a crab-sandwich on the menu).

This might have happened to the Greeks, as it often happens to us –  they might have squabbled all the harder, and been destroyed – but it didn’t happen.

Darius caused them to cooperate for the very first time. They stood together, shoulder to shoulder, for the very first time, all the Greeks united, one with another. And they defeated the Persians, sent them packing.

But because they were Greeks, it didn’t last.

As soon as the Persians were safely out of sight, they went straight back to arguing,

this time about who had been instrumental in defeating the Persians. And that led to the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, which destroyed the Greek world, so that the next outsider who arrived –  himself a Greek, by the way, Phillip from Macedon – was able to subdue them all.

That’s the problem with coalitions or partnerships: they may seem to be a good idea at the time, when we’re faced with something large and threatening. But they only seem a good idea whilst that threat remains threatening.

How much better if we could remember to form coalitions – me might even call them ‘partnerships’ – before we needed them, and while the sun is still shining, 

because we would realize how much we really have in common.

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