Rethinking Leadership

I was asked recently, “What are the most valuable and effective characteristics leadership must have to take on our pressing 21st century challenges?” I think humility would be at the top of the list. Leadership in this day and age requires a simple, gut-level and honest recognition that the leader just doesn’t have all the answers. The solution that follows, then, is that a leader must surround herself with individuals who can fill in the gaps. Leadership requires honesty – someone to just step up and admit when they’ve screwed up or got it wrong.

What’s more, I think effective leadership values collaboration from the team – above all else. It can’t be just an appreciation for the team. No. It has to be a desperation. A leader has to be quick to say, “Look if we don’t all put our heads together, we’re not going to figure this out.” And the team has to be involved at the creative level, not just the production level. It can’t be one figurehead (tyrant) dolling out commands so that an army of little minions can go get it done. Leadership is the team, maybe not an individual at all, and those teams have to include broad diversified groups of people, not just elite management and politicians.

Leadership also requires bravery. There may be times when none of the “solutions” look all that great, but “plan A” might at least be better than the rest and something has to be done. Finally, effective leadership requires rallying educated action, moving forward with the best plan possible, in the face of the fear of failure.

I was privileged to work with a team that had no “boss” or “manager”. Each of us had our own areas of specialized functions. But surrounding it all there was a real sense of comradery and cooperation. When facing big decisions there were many times when we would meet and just look at each other and then start tossing out ideas. There were some older and more seasoned people in the group. There were also visibly talented and gifted people in the group. But no one was in charge. No one dominated. There was a group flow. It was the only time I’ve ever experienced true collaboration and it was a beautiful thing. I’d like to think that I learned something from that experience. I think I’ve adopted an attitude of healthy interdependence with others. Yes, I believe I have something of value to offer here and there. But I also believe that I cannot figure out the right thing to do without the interaction and exchange of ideas with others. I think one of my skills might be the ability to work with a team, perhaps as a facilitator, to bring out the quiet personalities, and to probe for ideas that come collectively.

I think a “community council” might be what I’d call a group like this. It’s almost like the mix of people that might be thrown together for a jury. But what would come out of that council would be more realistic to the context of the community. It sounds like the Congressional Branch of our government, but it’s not because homeless people and single minority mothers and other marginalized people don’t become senators or representatives. Community councils would be effective because they would be grassroots in nature. They would be made up of stakeholders (not even citizens necessarily), ordinary people and not so ordinary people, who could brainstorm together for solutions that fit the context a whole lot better than top-down, one-size-fits-all policies.