Over three years ago, LLC published an important thought piece, “A New Leadership Mindset.” In the article, we point out that most of our thinking about leadership has focused almost exclusively on leadership as the behavior on an individual influencing others. We believe that our culture of individualism has permeated our leadership thinking causing us to look for and elevate the role of individuals in the change process missing another important dimension of leadership, i.e. leadership as the process by which many people align their efforts to take collective action on behalf of a common purpose. We don’t negate the role of individuals in the leadership process; in fact, we believe that even more is required of individuals to take successful action with others.
So what does this have to do with leadership development? When we launched LLC thirteen years ago, people asked us what we meant by leadership development? In response to this question, we would have been likely to name the following elements shared by most leadership development programs:
- the program uses a cohort delivery strategy convening a group of participants over a period of time
- the program is based in principles of adult learning that emphasize experiential learning
- the programs seeks to build specific leadership capacities with curriculum that is delivered through a variety of program components that would likely include some combination of training, coaching, self-reflection, assessment tool, retreats, study trips, financial awards, travel, and action learning
Traditional leadership programs that support individuals in a deeply reflective and often transformative experience continue to be important. In addition, we also believe that we need more programs or leadership development strategies that support individuals and groups as they engage in joint work and that these strategies will not necessarily look like traditional programs and in fact, may even be difficult to recognize as leadership development. We have focused recent learning on several interesting results focused approaches to leadership development that take several forms:
- Formal leadership programs that recruit and support groups as they work together on actual problems in teams or as a cohort
- Processes that are embedded within organizations, coalitions, networks and communities to help groups of people work more effectively together to achieve results. For example, many grassroots efforts are training organizers in a number of skills like facilitation, strategy and communication that help them to organize collective action. Even though participants are more effectively exercising their leadership with others as a result of real time training these approaches are often not recognized as leadership development.
Leadership programs can serve as a container for bringing people together from different organizations, sectors, and experiences to tackle a tough problem. This is a strategy that takes into account who needs to be connected to make progress on a specific issue and then supports the cohort with skills and processes that foster effective collective action. For example, the National Leadership Academy for the Public's Health (NLAPH) recruits diverse place based teams of leaders who want to work together on community health improvement projects. The teams are brought together in retreats and supported with webinars to introduce skills like systems thinking and to introduce frameworks on collaborative leadership and health equity. The teams are also supported in action learning by coaches.
It is more difficult for us to identify successful models of how groups are supported in doing work together with leadership processes because these approaches do not always identify themselves as leadership development and because they often do not conform to our ideas about what leadership development should look like. The Initiative Foundation in Minnesota has an interesting approach. They recruit entire communities that self-organize to select a diverse group of community representatives, who then identify a project they want to implement, projects like a community park. They can then apply for different types of supports that can be delivered through coaching and technical assistance that is provided to the entire group and other community members who want to participate. Supports and skills development are customized to help the community successfully implement their project.
We can also draw some creative ideas about how to develop leadership more aligned with our desired results by looking more closely at networks. Throughout, networks provide opportunities for individuals to step up and self-organize. Networks create a ladder of engagement understanding the importance of tapping people who have different levels of experience, time, or commitment. This approach provides multiple entry points for people to develop skills by doing with clear pathways and support for taking on increased responsibility. There is a commitment to joint learning about what is working, or not, and this spirit of experimentation and learning helps everyone to develop. For example, the Detroit Commonwealth is an organization with 1,200 members who are homeless and indigent. They meet weekly at several centers and anywhere from 50-80 members may show up. At the meeting different members will describe an issue that they are passionate about and would like to do something about, e.g. the need to get legal identification for homeless people or an abusive shelter administrator. If a member can rally several other members to their issue they will be supported in the process by a leadership team who will coach them through the process. Sessions are held on collective leadership and other leadership topics for members who want to attend. These supports are embedded within the organization to consistently develop leadership.
These are just a couple of examples of leadership development approaches that are closely tied to helping groups of people work together and they have positive examples of successful actions that have been supported by these unconventional approaches. We continue to scout for innovative approaches and encourage you to share your stories of approach how you are building collective leadership capacity.