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Pushing the Envelope on Leadership Development Delivery Strategies: Three Questions we should Explore


Over the past few years, LLC along with other researchers and practitioners has been calling for a new leadership mindset.  We need to expand our thinking about leadership from focusing on the behavior of individuals influencing others to a more expanded view of leadership as a dynamic process by which many who care about an issue connect their efforts to make change.  Of course, it would follow that if we are trying to support leadership as a process that occurs among people we need to also rethink leadership development delivery strategies. There are three questions we believe we should be exploring:

  1. If we are trying to foster leadership as a collaborative process is it counter- productive to select and focus on building the skills of individuals?
  2. If leadership is enacted by many people who bring different skills to a collective endeavor, why would we try to cultivate all of the leadership skills in one person?
  3. Should we be recruiting and supporting people who want to work on a shared purpose or in a common context to support collective leadership and accelerate action learning?


Most leadership programs focus on building the skill sets of individuals, often to prepare them to lead in organizations. As we embrace leadership as a process, what might be the limitations of selecting and developing individuals? Are we inadvertently reinforcing the individualism that has infused our leadership thinking by lifting up and recognizing a few individuals for achievements that are often the work of many collaborators?  Our current leadership lens may be preventing us from seeing the interactions of many who were engaged in change as we zero in on the most visible, outspoken or charismatic individuals.  Some have gone so far as to express the concern that the process of inadvertently ‘anointing’ some as “leaders” may undermine effective team efforts by undervaluing the contributions of others who were engaged in the leadership process that is producing results. 


If leadership emerges through the process of taking action, then the needed skills for success do not reside in one person (the leader), they are often distributed among different people within a group.  As a group comes together to work together on a problem like student learning or carbon emissions, they need to first understand what skills exist in the group, what processes, skills or frameworks they, as a group, may need; and what skills individuals might want to acquire on behalf of the group, for example everyone might benefit from bringing a systems analysis of an issue such as environmental degradation, but not everyone needs to be a great group process facilitator.


It is becoming increasingly clear, as well illustrated in the article “Collective Impact,” that no one individual or organization can effectively implement solutions on complex problems that require connecting efforts of multiple people and organizations.  Perhaps an important contribution leadership programs can make is to provide a container that supports and connects a group of people who are interested in working together on a complex problem.  Leadership programs such as Leadership in Action that are reporting impressive results, like a marked improvement in school readiness in an 18 month timeframe, are supporting people who feel some urgency around a specific problem.


While it may well be possible to help individuals learn collective behaviors, and develop and practice collaborative skills within a cohort environment; our traditional approaches have not led to the impacts we seek. This is why we feel it’s important to ask if there are there better ways to help groups, networks and communities exercise leadership to achieve greater public benefit?

Lessons from how leadership is being developed in networks:  We are not starting from scratch.  We can take some lessons from the ways in which leadership is being developed in the context of networks.  

Building relationships
: Networks focus heavily on relationship-building and helping participants to see and experience the power of interconnectedness by understanding how their individual and joint actions are contributing to a greater collective impact. In networks there is attention to people and groups who are at the periphery of the network and are valued for the diversity of thinking they can bring to the work.  Individuals can amplify their work through connectedness with others. In many leadership programs that emphasize building the skills of individuals in a cohort experience, evaluators hear story after story about the relationships being one of the most important parts of their leadership experience.  Many leadership programs are now shifting their focus to how to strengthen the relationships among their networks.  What if the relationships are even more important than skills?  What implications do this have for supporting leadership, i.e. who should be recruited and how should they be supported?

Multiple entry points
: A number of organizations that use network strategies create multiple entry points for people to get involved in things they care about. 
Mom’s Rising calls this the layer cake approach.   A mom may get involved by sharing her story about health reform for the Mom’s Rising blog and as she gets more interested there she can take on more responsibility, for example she may want to help organize speakers for a legislative hearing. Each contribution (small and large) is celebrated, and as more people get involved and move around there is always someone with experience to mentor people who are learning a new task.  Multiple entry points give people a chance to meet other people, build relationships and find opportunities to contribute their gifts. In this process, networks form, and people grow and develop their leadership as they do work together.  Leadership development can be built into the fabric of the network.

Convening and Process
ReAMP, a successful network that is tackling carbon emissions in the Midwest, offers another interesting example and there is a great case study well worth reading.  The funder supporting this network saw the value of bringing nonprofits and foundations working on carbon emissions together in a setting where they could set time set aside to get to know each other and the find connections in their work. In addition to being convened, the group was provided with facilitators who supported them in a systems mapping exercise.  It was a powerful tool for visualizing their connections and identifying levers for change, like stopping the production of coal plants. Network participants all had numerous responsibilities and demands in their own organizations so it was important to have the container that gave them time and space to get to know each other, build trust and find the ways that connecting their work would enable them to have more impact than any one of them working alone could hope to achieve.  

Learning by doing
: In a collective culture where small groups of people are actively supported to take risks and reflect and learn together a couple of things are happening.  Innovations and strong solutions can be generated more quickly in a network where you are likely to have lots of people trying different things so that you can share learning about the things that don’t work, discard those ideas and try new things until you hit on the big wins.  In the process of taking action and learning from action, individuals are learning from each other and developing. Unfortunately, we have not cultivated an appreciation for risk taking in the nonprofit sector (a topic of other blogs) and are likely not extracting the opportunities to grow individually and collectively through failures.

Implications for Leadership Development
These lessons are being echoed from other experiments in leadership development that have achieved surprising results in a short time by convening multiple stakeholders in a specific region who are focused on an urgent problem, or in the case of the
Horizon’s Communities by convening people in small communities to have guided discussions about their experiences of poverty and what to do about it. There are some striking similarities that point to new approaches to developing leadership capacity:

Support people, groups and organizations who want to work on a common concern: Many of the leadership strategies that can point to dramatic changes in the lives of people in a community are supporting people in the process of taking action together on a specific problem or issue.

Provide convening and process support that builds relationships: A number of successful approaches focus on supporting connection and understanding each other better (and in the process one’s self). For example, the systems mapping process was helpful to the ReAMP participants and study circles, the framed questions for participants in the Horizon’s program helping them to draw on their experiences and wisdom to shape plans, and the neighborhood circle process in
Lawrence Community Works used storytelling to build relationships among estranged neighbors.

Facilitate Action Learning: Learning from co-conspirators in joint action or colleagues in a field develops everyone involved. Fostering action learning, providing time and structure for reflection, and facilitating communities of learning and practice, all develop leadership.

Brokering resources: Maybe an important role for people and organizations who want to strengthen social change leadership is one of identifying and securing resources. Most of the approaches we are drawing from have an asset based philosophy and assume that groups and communities have among their members many of the skills that they need, so they don’t come with a fixed curriculum that some feel presumes a deficit of skills. This is not to say that in the course of work and trial and error that groups involved in change will not recognize that there may be resources, knowledge or skills that would be helpful. The difference is that people engaged in leadership are identifying what they need. Leadership programs or coaches can help respond to identified needs.


We realize that this can sound like heresy, to raise these questions in a learning community of leadership development providers.  We want to affirm what is working, while staying attuned to new opportunities and needs in a rapidly changing social change landscape.  We welcome your ideas, experiences, experiments, and concerns.

Image source: Tom BKK