IDEA #4: Know Where You Lead From

WE ARE ALL living with uncertainty. Wave, after wave, after wave of change.

#MeToo has been overtaken by #marchforlife and youth in America demanding change in gun culture.  Before that, Idle No More, the Occupy movement, climate change. And, before that, The Arab Spring and weapons of mass destruction.

And there is Trump. And his tweets.

The last time I recall feeling this much uncertainty was after September 11th.

On that unforgettable day, I was getting ready to deliver my speech on “Managing Energy Operations in Emerging Democracies”. The audience? Members of the Association of International Petroleum Negotiators, many from Muslim-majority countries, gathered in Calgary that day for an international conference.

Driving downtown with the radio turned up, listening to reporters describe the fall of the twin towers, again and again. Whatever the facts, the lives of many people I knew as friends and colleagues would be irreversibly changed. There was no precedent, no grounding, for this event.

It was agony; all I could think of was, “what now?”

I imagine that there have been days in the last year where you have felt the same about your role as an educator, a mentor, a parent, a decision-maker… in a world that seems increasingly uncertain.

We ask ourselves: What happens if protesters show up at our company work site? What happens if our college campus shows up on CBC news? And, what’s my role in all of this?

Top-down leadership may make polarities worse.

Understandably, one of the reactions to times of great uncertainty is an increased openness to top-down direction and authority. Forceful security measures to counter terrorists. Even aggressive tweets to deter rogue states threatening nuclear war.

We want someone to fix the problem!

There are times when top-down leadership is required. Absolutely. In the operating room, I prefer that one person, the surgeon, direct the operation. And in the heat of battle, soldiers need crystal-clear orders.

But when you are trying to hold the space for genuine dialogue—especially when you have people clinging to rigid, polarized positions—authoritarian leadership may not set the right tone. More often, a mix of top-down authority and bottom-up influence is needed.

If you are the one holding that space for dialogue, you have to really know your go-to leadership style. And, be able to recognize your sweet spots and weaknesses.

Beyond top-down and bottom-up, there are other ways to think about how you approach leadership. Especially in uncertain times, times when polarities get wide.

Insider, outsider, or someone in between?

Do you lead or influence change as an insider, as an outsider, or as someone in between? 

Maybe you are the consummate insider, one of those loyal people who serves at the core of an organization where top-down decisions are made.

Maybe you are the critical outsider. The person who throws missiles from beyond the walls.

There is a critical role for leading as insiders and outsiders. I admire people with the courage, commitment and loyalty to do what it takes, especially in uncertain times.

Yet there are people, including myself, whose truest selves are realized by acting at the edge-of-the-inside of a company, a political party, a faith community. This edge-of-the-inside seems to nurture my sense of who I am, my sense of dignity.

Bridge-building work.

Working to lead change from the edge-of-the-inside is bridge-building work.

You see what’s good about your own group, and aren’t threatened by those on the other side of the organizational wall. You know how to take advantage of the practices of an organization, but not be imprisoned by them.

But, it’s certainly not the most comfortable space.

When elected to provincial government, I understood the importance of allegiance to a political party yet equally prioritized my allegiance to constituents. There were times this way of thinking was seen as disloyalty.

I wasn’t seen as a true believer by the Party insiders; and I lacked the purity of an outsider from the perspective of some constituents.

Yet it was a leadership approach that allowed me to lead significant change, in uncertain times.

We need insiders, outsiders and people who lead from the edge of the inside.

Especially in the building of bridges between rigid and polarized positions, leading from the edge of the inside can be creative, constructive and energizing.

Leading from the edge of the inside isn’t for everyone. If you aren’t comfortable with this leadership style, think about finding people in your organization who are. And support them in their bridge-building.

Idea #4:  Know where you lead from. 

Next week, we’ll be talking about the 5th Idea for Life: An Antidote to Polarity.

Idea #5 is about bridge-building and imagination. When you focus on building walls, leaning too heavily on minor differences and ignoring the fundamentals, you can tend to define yourself by what you are not.

It’s way more fun & imaginative to build bridges, rather than walls.

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Donna Kennedy-Glans, May 6th, 2018

See also:

7 Ideas for Life: An Antidote to Polarity

Idea # 1: Step up, shoulders squared.

Idea # 2: Treat YOU like the ones you teach. 

Idea #3: Befriend the like-hearted. 


5 thoughts on “IDEA #4: Know Where You Lead From

  1. Donna, I really like that position – edge of the inside. You do it marvelously and I hope that I will learn to be gracious living and working there too. Thanks for sharing your insights.

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