I have been thinking a lot about leadership lately. Not just my own as I try to grow UnSectored into a platform worthy of our community, but about what it means to lead in a society that is more open and collaborative, and with no clear paths to creating change.
Our upcoming Talk next Monday (learn more and RSVP!!!) will be on this topic, and at the risk of priming the conversation a little too much, I’ll share what I’ve come to through my thinking on leadership:
Leadership is over.
Or, rather, leadership is fundamentally different than it was before we transitioned to a digital, social, and more-open society. It is no longer enough to form an idea and then lead people to action around your vision. The people you want to reach must be an integral part of your leadership process every step of the way, from the formation of the idea to the buy-in from other members of the community to the execution of whatever vision the community decides to create.
Lucy Bernholz, blogger, thinker, and co-facilitator of the #ReCodeGood sessions, recently wrote about civil society’s “Governance in the 21st Century.” She discussed how the wide-spread adoption of social media has made large foundations and nonprofits much more accountable to the general public, something that only government, for the most part, has had to deal with. She said:
Nonprofits are part of civil society which thrives only when it is filled with multiple points of view and diverse approaches to problem solving. The “public” will not agree with every decision a foundation or nonprofit makes and they have a right to express that disagreement… Generating ideas with the public, communicating ideas and theories and strategies with the public, and civilly debating with the public – especially the public that disagrees with you – is going to be a critical attribute in the future.
Nonprofits are not the only ones that need to pay attention to this trend, but all sectors. For example, the makers of the Little Printer used public input to develop their product from the beginning–creating a much broader market and a lot more excitement around it. Operating in this more open way has a huge effect on what it means to be a leader in today’s world.
Once you realize you need to engage the proverbial “public” in all things, the qualities of an effective leader become much different. Instead of devotion to an idea (or an organization or a product), you need to be devoted to the people you want to engage. Instead of an unflinching focus on goals and outcomes, you need to understand that creation takes time and where you end up might not be where you thought you would go. Essentially, you need to assume the role of a facilitator and recognize you and your ideas are just one part of a broader community working to create something bigger.
And if you start working this way, your impact will be much greater, and much more sustainable. I was recently at a StartingBloc conference and was lucky enough to hear from Mitchell Wade, StartingBloc’s chair, talking about sustainable change. He said that “the change that matters is the change that sticks around once you are gone.” The only way to do this is to make sure you have a lot of people working alongside you to execute your collective vision.
I struggle with what I see as a “cult of entrepreneurship” that focuses on and celebrates an individual’s creations and actions, rather than encourages broad-based engagement from multiple people and multiple perspectives. When trying to create change, whether that is from a for-profit model or a nonprofit model, you are, by definition, going to have an impact beyond your own individual scope. (I’d argue that even if you aren’t trying to create change, and just trying to make money, you’ll have an impact beyond your own scope.) If you want to be successful, then you need to think what happens when your impact grows beyond what you can influence, and what you originally intended.
Leading as an individual will not create change that remains once you are gone. Instead, you must facilitate a community that agrees with what you are trying to do (even if it is only one small part of that vision). By becoming a facilitator to support and connect a community of individuals, rather than a becoming leader of individuals, you can do more than you ever could have done alone.
I will admit that this idea–facilitation can lead to greater impact that simple leadership–is nothing new. Actually, this whole post is basically a re-hash of Martin Luther King’s “Drum Major Instinct” speech. You should have just read that instead of this. Sorry. But to pay homage, I’ll end on my favorite quote from that speech:
If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant.
I hope to continue this conversation with you at the Talk on cross-sector leadership next Monday, co-hosted by Laura Tomasko. If you can’t make it, feel free to add your thoughts in the comments section.