Leadership is never a solo act. Don’t even try to put on the show yourself. Instead, turn your imagination outward. You’ll make more progress on your most important challenge when you ask, “How can I energize other people to lead?” Even your best, most brilliant idea isn’t worth much unless other people share your aspirations and join you in the work of leadership.
For clues about how to engage the people and factions you’ll need to solve complex, adaptive challenges, explore the KLC leadership competency of Energize Others. To make real progress on the tough and important stuff, you’ll need to:
- Engage new voices
- Start where they are
- Work across factions
- Speak to loss
- Inspire a collective purpose
- Create a trustworthy process
Abandon the Old Model of Leadership
We won’t deny it, as a leadership competency, Energize Others is countercultural. It disrupts existing norms. It flies in the face of the old model of leadership.
With the old model, when someone says the word “leadership” our minds flash to one person confidently directing the way forward. The old leadership model is person-centric: Leadership equals a person, usually someone in a high-authority position. With the old model, there is no need to energize more and more people to exercise leadership. Instead, everyone waits for direction and inspiration from the top dog. One person sets the goals and does the leading. Other people follow, pitch in when asked, or limit their interventions to the pre-approved or tried-and-true.
If your challenge is technical or procedural – if what you really need is a great manager – the old model works just fine.
But that old, person-centric model of leadership won’t work to solve big, hairy 21st century problems.
Put the Challenge at the Center
Today’s most important challenges (the ones Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky named adaptive challenges) require a new, challenge-centric model of leadership. With the new model, anyone can step up to try to energize others. Anyone can do their part to focus attention on an important issue or opportunity. The moves you use will look different depending on your place in the organization or community, but in the new model everyone can lead.
With the new, challenge-centric model, leadership is an activity focused on making progress on a tough challenge. With this model, the person at the top has a leadership role to play and experiments to run related to that challenge, but so do those at the middle and the bottom of the hierarchy. Front line works and CEOs, volunteers and governors, everyone can exercise leadership within their sphere of influence.
It’s About the Culture! Make Challenge-centric the Way We Do Leadership Around Here
When the challenge-centric model takes root in your culture, people at all levels feel compelled to see and seize their moments to lead. Your biggest, most important leadership challenge becomes everyone’s orienting purpose, a North Star for a multitude of leadership experiments.
Energizing others is about getting all the necessary people exercising leadership with an eye toward the same big aspirations. We’re not looking for lock-step agreement on everything, just to get most people headed in the same direction, differently. In communities and companies, when enough people put the same challenge at the center of their leadership, and when they stay patient and purposeful, they will make more progress on what matters most.
Energizing Others is Worth the Effort
It takes effort to connect with people who think differently about an important issue. As you consider ways to energize all the necessary factions to pick up their piece of the work, take inspiration from the final chapter of When Everyone Leads:
“There may have been times in history (maybe you can remember a time in your company or your country) when just one or two people spurred major progress on a given issue. But today’s dynamics are different. The rate of change is too fast. The perspectives on problems are too diverse. Today, progress requires lots of people with the ability to adapt and the skills to mobilize others. …When it comes to our toughest challenges, we each have a piece of the puzzle.” – O’Malley and Fabris-McBride
Leadership starts with you. But it can’t stop there. If you want to make progress on your toughest challenges, energize other people to lead.