We Have a Leadership Problem

I Can Be Your Hero..

"Leadership" has been on my mind lately, maybe because of the many conversations I have with people about the "lack of leadership" in their organizations.  It also came up in the comments on my recent post on "Managing" People.  Everywhere I go, people are talking about "leadership." 

But I'm rapidly coming to the conclusion that the last thing we need right now is more leaders or even better leaders. The entire frame is fundamentally flawed. 

The Problem with "Leadership"

When we talk about "leaders," implicit in the notion is that there are going to be "followers." There is a power dynamic in the idea of leadership that is often unexamined and that makes it virtually impossible for us to address the complex issues that lie before us. 

Leadership has an heroic quality to it. It implies that a leader can save us from whatever situation we find ourselves in. It puts the onus on the leader to find answers, divine the way and to move us along that path. The leader determines the course of action and we decide if and how we will follow. 

In our mythology of the leader, they are lone gunslingers (or maybe a team of a few), riding in on their white horses to save the day. They are the saviors, the heroes, the dragon-slayers. They are exalted and somehow different from ordinary mortals, imbued with special powers and skills that the rest of us can only wish we had. 

Some leaders are better than others at inviting participation in their leadership. Certainly this is better than a dictatorship. But still, at the heart of any notion of leadership is a fundamental power imbalance where the leader wields power that followers do not. 

This is its fundamental flaw. "Leadership" mark some as "special" while others are not. 

Even when we pay lipservice to the idea that we are all leaders, we secretly know this is crap. The very word "lead" means that someone is in charge and others are following.  We may not want to admit this is true, but it is. 

Why Do We Love Leaders?

We love having leaders (even when we chafe against them) because it relieves us of any responsibility or accountability for where we are or where we want to go. I can sit back and blame what's happening on "a lack of leadership." I can operate from my stance as a helpless victim of the leaders who will not lead or who lead poorly.  We see this at work all the time--the people who want "leaders," but then who blame the leaders they find for not being sufficiently heroic in saving them. 

And for those of us who aspire to be leaders, there is that secret wish that we will be the hero. We love leadership because if we become leaders, then it casts us in that mystical glow that comes with our status as leaders. We see ourselves as participatory leaders--and maybe we are--but still, as leaders, we are "the ones in charge." 

Lately it seems to me that we are workshipping at the altar of leadership  because we are desparate for new solutions and ideas. If we can only build leaders, then we can all be saved. We are like children, looking for our parents to swoop in and save the day. Leaders are the heroes and we are looking for them to rescue us. Or we are looking to BE the heroes and do the rescuing. 

But this is a damaging, disempowering way of operating in the world. All this worship of leaders and leadership merely perpetuates a dynamic of savior/victim. It makes it harder for those who feel that they are not leaders to contribute their strengths, ideas and gifts to the collective good. And it causes us to expend energy on all the power struggles that go with this idea--who's the leader, who isn't, how does the leader preserve his/her special status as hero, how do the rest of us respond to that? 

From Leader to Citizen 

I think we need to retire the words "leader" and "leadership" and begin to talk differently about how we are working. "Leaders" are about hierarchy and if we are working in a dense collection of networks now, we cannot look to "leaders" to solve our problems. 

We need to find a different way of talking about what needs to be done, that engages all people in the work. I like the word "citizen," which to me implies that we have rights AND responsibilities in the communities where we operate--including responsibilities to participate in contributing to the collective good. 

What would happen if we stopped talking about ourselves as "leaders" and developing our "leadership' and we started talking about ourselves as "citizens" and what it means to be good citizens in our world?  How could that change the ways we interact and the solutions we find? 

Your Favorite Leadership Articles?

I'm working with a youth leadership program that will bring together HS sophomores with leaders from government, business, nonprofits and the media to explore the concepts of leadership in these different areas. We'd like to share a few articles with the participants---stuff that gets them thinking. I have a few ideas but would love to get your feedback.

What are your favorite articles on leadership? Drop me a note in comments. Depending on what I get back, I'll do a follow-up link post.

The Company We Keep--and the Environment We Make

Outliers As American's we're taught (sometimes implicitly) that we rise or fall on our own merits, that through our individual goals and activities we can achieve anything we want.  I've always had a problem with this philosophy. I've seen too many times how the greatest personal effort can die when you lack access to the resources and advantages enjoyed by some of your fellow citizens.

With this in mind, I just finished reading Malcom Gladwell's new book, Outliers. In it, he argues that insanely successful people are less a product of their abilities than of a series of lucky breaks that can put them in the position to develop and/or take great advantage of those abilities.

Gladwell points out, for example, that Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and several other high tech gurus happened to be born at a particular time (the mid 1950's) and in a particular place (Silicon Valley) that favored their specific talents. In turn, they had access to people and experiences that helped them build on their abilities. In other words, if Steve Jobs was born a few years earlier or in South Dakota,  I might not be writing this on a MacBook Pro.

What strikes me about Gladwell's premise is how it takes away from us this idea that somehow we're successful ONLY as a result of our individual talents. It reminds us that as much as we want to believe that we're products of our own efforts we are not. Time, place, our social environment--all of these have a far greater impact than we give them credit for.

Part of me feels a loss of control in this idea. If my success is a function of time, place and other people, then what the hell do I do with that?  At the same time, it removes a level of guilt--if I'm unsuccessful, then maybe it wasn't my fault after all.

What Outliers really left me thinking about, though, was the issue of the company we keep and the ways in which we create advantageous environments for the people around us. This seems particularly important in a networked world and in a world that currently seems to be falling apart. And it seems that we have more opportunities than we once did to spread our positive influence in ways that can make more people more successful.

So the question is, what can we do to support making more people into "Outliers"? How can we contribute to creating an environment that breeds success?

Teaching and Learning Leadership in a Connected World

Leadership_1 I'm halfway following the Connectivism course, while also preparing to leave in a few hours for the Nonprofit Roundtable Future ED Fellowship course where we'll be exploring concepts of leadership over the next few days. This morning I was hit by two really important statements:

Teaching is modeling and demonstration.

Learning is practice and reflection.

So simple, yet so profound. These have been the principles by which I've always tried to facilitate learning, but never stated as clearly as this. In the clarity I find new insight.

Over the next six months we'll be teaching people who are used to being the "do-ers" in their organizations. They are the ones in charge of implementing and managing programs and services. Now they must transform themselves into leaders, the ones who have to provide the vision and the environment for the "doing" to occur.

The "teachers" in our course will be people who are leaders themselves.  In their work with the Fellows, they will need to model and demonstrate the behaviors and skills of leadership--the art of being a leader. This can be difficult to do in only a few hours, but if leading is about who you are, I suspect that this will happen naturally.

At the same time, the Fellows will need to practice leadership and, more importantly, reflect on that practice. They will need also to observe what is being modeled for them in terms of leadership and determine how these behaviors they're seeing do or don't fit into their own concept of leadership. Providing them with the structure and the support to observe, ask questions, and be open to their learning and reflection will be my challenge.

In a call yesterday with some of the other instructors for the course, one of them said that he sees leadership needing to be based on core personal values. So true and a big part of what we'll be exploring in using the Total Leadership model.

Leadership is about knowing and being your authentic self. It's about bringing your activities into alignment with that core self. It's about creatively experimenting with and exploring ways to get things done. Leadership is "doing," but it's doing based on a fundamental understanding of who you are and how to act with integrity in being that self. Leadership_2

Leadership is also about ensuring that your core values are aligned with the values of the organizations and people with whom you interact. If you do not find a match, something has to give.

Usually I've found that it's  the person who bends to fit the values of the organization, rather than the other way around. Sometimes this is a good thing, but usually it is not.

When we live a life that is not aligned to what is most important to us, we are generally unhappy and ill-at-ease. Our life does not fit us and, just like shoes that pinch and squeeze, a life that does not fit our values causes us pain with every step.

We also do not do our organizations, colleagues, friends and family any favors when we bend too much to fit their values. This is usually when we act with resentment or give up altogether. Inevitably and, often explosively, being out of touch with ourselves will backfire.

But back to my core observation here--that this learning environment I'm going to be creating must support both the modeling and demonstration of leadership skills, as well as the practice and reflection of them. Working with people who are used to the "doing" will make the reflecting more of a challenge I suspect. When you're busy making things happen, it can be hard to observe and reflect. Yet this is what they will need to do in order to make that transition. Facilitating that process will be an interesting challenge for me.

Photos via Donald Clark

Wordle What You WANT to Do

Yesterday I suggested exploring your personal brand by using Wordle on your blog. Shannon Turlington tried that exercise out and found that she didn't like the results, so she "wordled" her semi-private journal where she's been writing about what she wants to do for the future. The results were much more to her liking.

I think this is a great twist on the idea if what you're doing now isn't where you want to be. Why not try writing out a personal vision/values statement and then running it through Wordle to see what you get? Or maybe write about what you're doing now and then what you'd like to do and then Wordle both pieces. I think that quick shot of a visualization could give you even more insight than simply writing out your ideas.

One resource I'd recommend for exploring this whole issue of vision and values is Total Leadership. We're using it in the Nonprofit Roundtable of Greater Washington's Future Executive Director Fellowship program and its one of the best resources on personal leadership I've ever seen. Some detailed info and exercises are here and I highly encourage you to consider getting the book.

Reflective Practice: Most Significant Change Stories

Thinking_2 I'm currently leading a project where we are bringing together four nonprofits and 11 young people who have dropped out of high school and/or who are aging out of foster care. There's a lot of data about the bad outcomes for HS dropouts, but not a lot of political will in some areas to do something about it. Through our project we are working with our student teams to help them videotape interviews with their peers and pull together digital stories that make the numbers come alive for people. Our ultimate goal is to put faces with the numbers so that we can engage the entire community in addressing the needs and issues of these youth.

As this is a grant-funded project, one of the requirements, of course is evaluation. This is being conducted by an outside organization using a technique I haven't previously experienced in these kinds of projects--"most significant change stories." Each month our team is required to submit 1-3 stories about what we are learning and how this is impacting the structure and approach of our projects, as well as our outcomes. It's been an interesting experience that has forced us to reflect more carefully on what is happening with our work.

I've written previously about incorporating reflective practice into individual work and organizational culture. This "most significant change story" strategy would be an excellent addition to the process. It could be used to:

  • Regularly reflect on your individual growth or the growth of a department or organization.
  • Measure the progress of various projects, similar to how it's being used with my project.
  • Help you or your organization reflect on crucible experiences, those "trial by fire" times in our life when everything about us is tested.
  • As part of a leadership development or certification training program.

The structure of the process is that we respond to several questions:

  • At what level is the change--individual, organizational, system-wide or community-wide?
  • How was the story obtained? (did it come from personal experiences? Overheard in meetings? Told to you by someone else?)
  • What's the story?
  • Why is it significant?
  • Which project outcome is it impacting and how?

Obviously the specific reflection questions might change depending on the context in which the stories are being gathered.

In our case, we are submitting the stories to evaluators who are compiling them for a final report. If you used this process for reflective practice, however, I would see using social media tools. For example, individual reflections might be maintained in a blog or microblog, like Tumblr. If you were using this as a tool for organizational development, I would create a wiki where there would be a more collaborative opportunity to build upon and comment on the stories, maintaining them in a single repository. If your organization was particularly brave, I'd even open up these significant change stories to your customers, at a minimum so they could see how you reflect on your experiences as an organization. Ideally you'd allow customers to submit their own and/or comment on what you've shared.

To encourage reflective practices, you have to create the right kinds of structures for them to flourish. The most significant change story technique combined with social media might be a good place to start.

Photo via galo/*

Do You Set Your Priorities to Add Value or To Avoid Pain?

Pain LaDonna Coy and I ended up in an interesting email conversation over the weekend that got me thinking about how we set priorities for ourselves, both as individuals and as organizations. We were discussing that working from home gave us more flexibility and time for continuous learning and then LaDonna mentioned that a friend of hers was going to be spending Saturday in the office, "catching up on paperwork." I have to say, that set me off a little as I began to think about how some of the least value-add activities can end up taking up most of our time.

One of the major reasons for not engaging in continuous learning that I hear from individual people as well as the organizations that they work for is lack of time. I understand and sympathize with this, but I also have to wonder if it's really lack of time or if it's about how we prioritize what we're doing--or about the priorities our employers seem to be setting for us.

Essentially what I see all too often is that things like paperwork and lengthy meetings of questionable relevance take precedence in most organizations over spending time on learning. It's like what happens in a lot of marriages, where everything but the couple's relationship is a priority and then the next thing you know, you're in divorce court.

Even though ongoing learning is critical for the success of most workers and their organizations, learning is usually where we spend the least amount of time. Few supervisors will call us into the office if we stop learning, but if we fail to attend a meeting?  Then we'll hear about it. Even though what was discussed in the meeting could actually have been posted to the company blog or wiki, taking up 5 minutes of our time rather than 55 minutes.

I also see this in individual choices, where people will make time for an hour of American Idol, but not for an hour of professional development in their off-time. The thinking seems to be, "If they aren't going to pay me for it, then why should I learn?" Unless you're independently wealthy, this is a dangerous attitude to have.

What I think happens for many of us is that we set priorities based on "avoiding immediate pain" rather than on what adds the most value. I'll spend time on paperwork because I don't want the pain of being called on the carpet but I won't engage in continuous learning activities because not learning doesn't cause me immediate pain. This happens on an organizational level, too--we'll engage in endless crisis management meetings, but it will "take too much time" to have meetings that might help us avoid the crisis in the first place, so we don't have them.

There are obvious problems with this approach. If you think about it, "avoiding pain" is a pretty negative and short-sighted criterion to use in deciding how we spend our days. It  tends to put us into a cycle that creates even more pain because we aren't focusing on the kinds of activities that build us up (individually or organizationally), but on the things that constrain us. If you believe that you get what you focus on (which I do), then focusing on pain is just a way to keep inviting it back into your life.

Ultimately what happens when we use the pain avoidance approach to setting priorities is that our lives become a sequence of short-term activities that feel limiting (because they are) and meaningless. Avoiding pain isn't a strategy for having impact. It's simply a way to get through the days.

I think a good question to start asking ourselves is if an activity is something we're doing to avoid pain or if it's something that will really add value, for ourselves or for our organizations. Sometimes we'll still have to do the things that help us avoid pain--it's part of the human condition, I'm afraid. But maybe by evaluating what we do in this light, we can also start making the things that add value--like learning--more of a priority.

How do you set your priorities? Do you think that you set them to add value or do you find that you're doing more things to avoid pain? And how does this make you feel about what you do each day?

Photo via The Rocketeer


Retiring Baby Boomers + Gen X/Millenials + Technology=Virtual Mentoring?

Vicki_davis_virtual_volunteer Awhile back, Vicki Davis wrote an excellent post on how she had used Skype, a headset and a webcam to bring business people as "virtual volunteers" into her classroom where they could share their experiences with her students and respond to their questions right from their offices. It occurs to me this morning that with the impending wave of retiring Baby Boomers and a mounting need for Gen X and Millenials to receive ongoing guidance, technology-enabled mentoring might fill a real gap.

Some of the benefits I see:

  • Experienced managers could "meet" with individuals or groups of employees using Skype or oovoo from anywhere in the world. So if you wanted to retire to Florida, you could still mentor someone in Fresno.
  • By recording some of the mentoring sessions, an organization might begin to build (or add to) their knowledge base. I could see, for example, an experienced mentor discussing how to handle a management issue or strategies for connecting to clients. This interaction could be recorded and maintained in an organizational wiki or private Ning community for later viewing by other members of the organization.
  • Mentoring could happen across organizations, via professional associations and industry groups. In the nonprofit sector, for example, there's a real concern about the transfer of knowledge to the next generation. Most nonprofits are fairly small so finding mentors only within an organization could be a challenge. But with technology, mentoring groups could be set up that cut across geography and time zones and allow the very best people in a particular function to share their knowledge with mentees from a variety of organizations.
  • One of the challenges to mentoring is finding the time for it. Using a technology-enabled approach, mentors could take an hour right from their desks, causing minimal disruption to their work day.

Of course mentoring relationships definitely benefit from face-to-face interactions, so where possible, I'd see this as a potential supplement to personal meetings. But particularly in those cases where it may be difficult to find a mentor or where mentors are not physically able to meet with their "mentees," I see a technology-supported approach as a real potential option.

What do you think? Is this something that could work? Have you seen successful examples of organizations using technology-enabled mentoring?

Photo via Vicki Davis

Thinking About Leadership

A couple of quick leadership links. . .

Elisa Ortiz of the Nonprofit Congress was kind enough to invite me to do a guest post over at the Nonprofit Congress Blog. Here it is--Leading from the Inside Out. Elisa was one of the attendees at our retreat last month and I can tell you that she's awesome--energetic and passionate, exactly what we look for in a young leader.

Speaking of awesome, energetic leaders, Rosetta Thurman of Perspectives from the Pipeline has a terrific post in honor of Martin Luther King Day in which she asks what would have happened if the 26 year old King had been told he was "too young" to take a front seat in driving the civil rights movement. Good question--something worth pondering as we look at a new generation willing to assume the mantle of leadership, but wondering how to go about doing it.

No Excuses Leadership

No_excuses Katya Andresen has a GREAT post on operating your organization with no excuses. Apparently she recently did a presentation on tweaking your marketing messages, where she was told by her audience that her suggestions weren't possible because:

1. I don’t have the budget to do that.
2. I don’t have the staff to do that.
3. I don’t have the time to do that.
4. I don’t have the internal support to do that.
5. I don’t have the expertise to do that.

Katya goes on to take each of these "constraints" and turn them into possibilities, urging us to think in terms of what we CAN do, not what we can't.

Katya's experience is something I get all the time, particularly when it comes to suggesting that staff change how they are currently operating. It seems that it's easier to spend time making excuses for why things can't change, rather than trying to figure out how they can change.

I suspect that this goes back to how scarcity thinking seems to rule in most organizations. Even though there's a lot of evidence to suggest that creativity actually does better when constraints exist, most people persist in the belief that constraints hold us back, rather than giving us a framework within which we can find solutions to our problems.

I'm doing a lot of thinking lately about leadership in organizations and Katya's post underscores the point that leadership is about making solutions, not excuses.  It's about recognizing where there may be some constraints and then using those constraints to propel you forward.

One of my favorite leadership books of all time, Good to Great, talks about how the great companies use The Stockdale Paradox:


The Stockdale Paradox


Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties.


AND at the same time


Confront the most brutal facts of  your current reality, whatever they might be.

Many companies have failed because they are unwilling to confront the brutal facts, but I suspect that in the nonprofit sector, the bigger problem is going beyond the brutal facts to create something different. There seems to be a pervasive mindset that a lack of resources means an inability to change or have impact. From what I've observed, however, it's often not the lack of resources that is the problem. It is how the resources are being allocated and used that is the issue. In Katya's post, for example, she points out that instead of thinking "I don't have enough time to tweak my marketing messages," the answer should be "My time is better spent fixing a bad message rather than sending out more bad messages."  It isn't about the lack of time as much as how the time is being used.

In so many cases, it seems that organizations just sort of give up and give in to their excuses. This, to me, is one of the most profound failures of leadership. It's impossible to have any kind of vision if your sight is clouded by all that you can't do. Vision, by it's nature, is about seeing the possibilities, not the limitations. It's about seeing what CAN happen, not what isn't working. Excuses don't create change. They maintain the status quo, something that presumably many organizations are trying to change.

It also seems like this kind of "excuses only" leadership could become one of the primary reasons that  many nonprofits may find themselves becoming irrelevant. In a recent post, Seth Godin talks about the death of direct mail and how he he's worried about the ability of the largest nonprofits to change:

I'll start with the bad news: I despair for most of the top 50 non-profits in the US. These are the big guys, and they're stuck. Unlike the Fortune 100, not known for being cutting edge in themselves, the top charities rarely change... if you're big, you're used to being big and you expect to stay big. That means that generation after generation of staff has been hired to keep doing what's working. Big risks and crazy schemes are certainly frowned upon.

What I see here is the potential for more "excuses only" leadership--"We can't change because we've already invested so much into doing what we've been doing" (a constraint), rather than "The rules of the game are changing, so how can we keep up?" (a possibility).

What Katya's post opens up for me is a call to "No Excuses Leadership" that individuals and organizations must learn to heed. If they don't, then they'll get left behind.

Photo via vandy.