Three Qualities of Leadership that can Catalyze Change

350px-Tree_roots_cross_sectionThis post was originally written for UVM Brainwaves, a blog at the University of Vermont Rubenstein School of  the Environment and Natural Resources where I teach about leadership for sustainability.

 

Someone I once supervised told me my leadership ethic was clear and simple: Pay close attention. Do good work. Make no excuses.

I had never thought of it quite that way, but she gave a fair description of what I value as a leader. Upon taking a closer look, I would recommend these qualities for anyone who wants to be an effective agent of change.

3 Effective Qualities of Leadership:

1. Pay Close Attention

Leadership is the act of making an intervention within a system, trying to change the results that a system produces. Unfortunately, every problem we try to solve is part of a system that is much bigger and more complex than we can ever see! That’s why effective change leaders make the lowest-level intervention they possibly can and then pay attention to what shifts. Sometimes that change is local and immediate, and sometimes it is broad and long-term.

During the recent wave of police killings of young black men across America, mayors prioritized “controlling the spin” of their cities’ stories. But when a 12-year-old boy playing with a toy pistol was killed by a police officer in Cleveland, Ohio, Mayor Frank G. Jackson took unusual action by holding a public session at the community center where the shooting happened to answer questions and listen to community concerns. By making this low-level intervention, quickly hearing from the people who were most affected, Mayor Jackson did two things: first, he achieved the immediate goal of preventing destruction caused by civil disturbances by letting people know they had been heard; second, he modeled the importance of addressing problems by listening and sharing information quickly.

By paying close attention to how a gentle intervention affected other parts of the community system, including angry community activists and a potentially reactionary police union, Mayor Jackson saw that he didn’t need a big intervention with lots of fanfare. Rather, his subtle method achieved the change he wanted: peaceful resolution to a violent situation and a police force held accountable to the community it serves.

2. Do Good Work

Leadership is a function, not a role. It is different from being the person whose charisma, job title or position in the organization labels them a leader. The fact is that no single person leads a movement. Looking again at leadership as an intervention, a leader is anyone who helps a social structure change the way it works in order to produce different results. We see this in many social movements that don’t have a single leader—they are not leaderless, they are leader-full.

My favorite leadership story is about the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Many people know about the leadership of Rosa Parks. A few even know about Mrs. Park’s predecessor in refusing to give up her seat, 16-year-old Claudette Colvin. But the Montgomery Bus Boycott was a leader-full movement made possible because of information: information about bus boycotts that had worked in other cities, information about where to find a carpool to get to work, information about which church was having a rally or a fish-fry fundraiser to benefit people who were out of work.

That information was shared on flyers printed in secret by a professor and distributed by her students. Jo Ann Robinson chose to lead through work that was of the greatest support to the movement, doing it consistently and well. If Professor Robinson had not done the good, but humble, leadership work of cranking the handle of a mimeograph machine, there could not have been a massive organized response in the wake of Rosa Parks’s arrest, and few would have heard the inspiring voice of the new, young preacher in town named Martin Luther King Jr.

3. Make No Excuses

Good leadership requires recognizing change as it happens and naming that change out loud. Leaders are accountable for observing the impacts of their interventions, noticing both the intended effects and also those they did not expect.

Leaders advocating for healthy-food options popularized the term “food deserts” to describe areas where people had no access to full-service grocery stores with the intent to point out that, in a nation of plenty, some Americans still have limited access to food. Many people thus became interested in solving the problem of food deserts. However, there was one major problem: some of the people living without access to a grocery store hated the term “food deserts!” They pointed out that deserts are natural phenomena to which life can adapt, but economic disinvestment in poor communities is not. In trying to label their movement, leaders had gotten it wrong, and their desire to help people get access to food actually alienated those most affected.

To adapt to this unforeseen problem, food-access advocates began to work in more accountable ways with community members affected by the absence of grocery stores. Together, they approached food access as a social-justice issue rather than a natural phenomenon, coining the term “food justice.” This vocabulary connected a lack of access to food to larger systems of environmental, economic and social harms, and helped leaders target these underlying causes.

If you asked me how to be effective as a leader, I could tell you a thousand deep, long stories about systems, relationships and what it means to lead. Or, I could simply remember the words my colleague said to me: Pay close attention. Do good work. Make no excuses.

– See more about the UVM Masters in Sustainability program at: http://learn.uvm.edu/programs/m-s-leadership-sustainability/network/

 

Advertisements
Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Tell me what you think about this:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: