Leadership: Throw out the hierarchy and look within

supermanWho are the leaders within your organization? Are they so named simply because they “manage” people, or do they have other qualities that have nothing to do with title and rank? More importantly, can leadership be learned?

It sure can.

My colleague Jim Morris and I see this all the time in the leadership institutes we facilitate for clients like the City of Portland. Like many organizations today, the City understands that formal authority is not the only model of leadership. People at all levels are leading task forces, advisory groups, or multi-bureau work groups whose members may be located in different places and where formal line authority is diffuse, distributed, or absent altogether. What we’ve found is that leadership is the ability to influence others and affect change – regardless of one’s position on the organizational chart.

The Institute is modeled on the research of James Kouzes and Barry Posner, who found that effective leaders across the globe employ very similar practices—all of which can be taught and learned. They are:

  • Inspire a shared vision.  From shared goals to a shared vision, effective leaders are able to help others see the end point – what everyone is working together to build.
  • Model the way.  Effective leaders walk their talk, even when the going is tough. They earn trust because they consistently demonstrate their values and principles.
  • Challenge the process.  Leaders are bold. They ask tough questions and aren’t afraid to point out the “elephant in the room.”
  • Enable others to act.  Rather than go it alone, leaders invite participation and encourage others to develop new skills and knowledge.
  • Encourage the heart.  Perhaps most importantly, leaders understand that leadership is all about relationships. So they work on a personal level, recognizing others for their contributions.

The Institute is a bonding experience for participants. One recent cohort had sweatshirts made that displayed their group’s name – High Impact Leadership Team (HILT) – next to the hilt of a sword. But its primary impact may be in how it shifts people’s self-perception. One emerging leader who had been puzzled by her nomination to the Institute had this to say about her experience:

“Now I see that what I’ve been doing is a form of leadership. I have the power to help others be more effective as we work together. It [the Institute] was an awesome experience to work with everyone and see how differently we approach our leadership possibilities.”

Jim and I learn more about leadership with each Institute we lead. Each one confirms our belief that leadership is a form of performance art, and the instrument is self.

Arty Trost, Portland, OR

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