Why everything I learned about leadership was wrong

Christine Mayer \
December 09, 2015

This article originally appeared on Smart Business Online

OK, I’ll confess to a little hyperbole in the title. I should clarify: most everything is wrong. Because I am learning to discard much of what I learned in my younger years, I am compelled to share some perspective on how Leadership 101 may not play well in the arena of broad-based community change.

All successful efforts need one champion
One leader. One hero. How many times have I heard that “we need to identify our champion”? “If only we could get the right leader, then everything will fall into place.” I have learned, of late, that when facing a complex challenge — such as improving a city’s economic vibrancy, delivering quality education across a community, developing a world-class workforce preparation system — the search for one hero is a fool’s errand.

Complex problems were not caused by the failure of one person or one institution. Nor can one person solve them. The search for one leader who will drive change is not only doomed to fail; it also causes us to disinvest in the diverse cast of characters who could contribute meaningfully to a solution, if only they felt empowered to step up and do so. Leadership on civic issues is all about contribution by the many, not attribution to the one.

Never let them see you sweat
Are we all inspired by strong leaders? Sure we are. Do we want to know that leaders are competent and well-equipped to do the work? You bet. And yet is it easy to develop deep trust in a colleague if that person shows only his or her strengths at all times? Not so much. It is said that collaboration moves at the speed of trust. I will further posit that trust develops only where there is authenticity.

So when we can set aside some of our formality and step out of the shadow of our institutional identity, we may surprise ourselves by connecting with fellow leaders on a more genuine, human level. When that kind of connection happens, it becomes much easier to do all the things we need to do to collaborate well — communicate openly, share information freely, contribute to a greater goal without ego.

A good collaborator gets along with everyone
I recently heard a speech from Paul Schmitz, the CEO of Public Allies, a leadership development organization whose mission is to create a just and equitable society and the diverse leadership to sustain it. Schmitz caught me with this: “The absence of conflict does not mean you’re collaborating well.” Indeed! He urged us to look for debate, disagreement and humanity, as those are the hallmarks of a healthy collaboration, in which people are digging in and investing with their best ideas.

To make real progress, we need to stop placing a premium on the appearance of peace. We need to create the conditions where ideas can be pressure-tested, pulled apart, improved and owned. With the trust we have built, we need not worry that debate will derail our work; on the contrary, it will make it stronger.