Leadership from the Roots

There’s nothing like challenging times to bring out new books and blogs about leadership.

Being something of a junkie when it comes to information about community leadership and change, I try to read or at least scan as many as I can.

Unfortunately, it’s become an increasingly frustrating exercise for me as most seem to be written by a guy who is either an academic or is working in a corporate setting at, or near, the top of the hierarchy. And while there’s nothing wrong with those distinct set of lenses, it just doesn’t resonate with the realities of what I’m seeing. Nor does it provide many meaningful solutions for the complex issues and challenges being faced by communities across Canada.

Most of the books and blogs seem to miss the point that the meaningful leadership in communities is often unrelated to hierarchies. In fact, much of the leadership I’m seeing is not coming from those at the top of the hierarchy by rather by those who intuitively understand that one can lead without being in charge.

Nowhere is this more evident than among the internet generation who are using technology to influence and shape their surroundings.

Take for example, 25 year old Chris Hughes who, in addition to helping create the phenomena of Facebook, put the online campaign in place that is credited with getting Barack Obama elected as president. While those involved in Obama’s campaign may not have paid much attention to Hughes in the beginning, you can be sure when he speaks these days, everyone will be listening. That by itself should be a key leadership learning for any CEO, academic or elected official anywhere…”grassroots” leadership from a guy like Hughes is just as critical as the “grass tops” leadership provided by Obama.

Additionally, most leadership and management books seem to provide a lot of information about the specific traits and behaviours that are needed. And while there’s no doubt that’s important, perhaps what is more crucial is a greater awareness of what leaders are lacking.

For example, those in positions of leadership or those who want to lead, would gain more from knowing what they as an individual lack. It is this know-how of what’s missing from one’s self that will lead to the building of collaborative efforts and teams that can make a difference.

This week especially it is a lesson I’m personally experiencing as a number of examples have reinforced for me how much I suck at details.

While I can and have written and implemented policies and procedures, compiled budgets, and implemented action plans, it takes me more time than it should and truly saps my energy. 

Many experts either identify the traits or behaviours of a leader that should be emulated or suggest that if I am to be a leader I need to work at strengthening and enhancing my weaker skills. However, I am instead more and more of the opinion that I’m better off knowing my strengths and using them more. For instance, I now know I’m simply much more wired to be a big picture thinker. Focusing on details even more than I already am might not make sense.

A better use of time and energy for any leader would seem to be that of paying more attention to vision and values and to building a team that collectively reflects a lot of different leadership strengths to drive it forward.

Far more important than trying to be one leader who can do everything, is accepting that it will never happen. It’s better to know how to build a leadership team that is aware of the context within which they’re operating and appreciates that each leader is partly in charge of the situation as a whole.

Leaders today need to understand how to gather and build a team that is honest and comfortable enough with one another to have authentic courageous conversations, where members trust one another, and opportunities are provided for everyone to tap into and utilize their respective passions.

This in turn will lead to the shared meaning and aligned and coherent action that will be clearly viewed by all stakeholders as leadership.

It won’t mean everyone will always agree with one another but there will be enough shared meaning and commitment to take action. In fact, the important part of a leadership team is that they do push each other’s buttons. As painful as that may sometimes be, it will be within these conflicts and stumbles that the real leadership growth and learning will take place.

Posted on 04-26-09

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