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Change Perceptions, Change Reality
Barbara Poppe consults with organizations to help them find solutions to reduce homelessness and housing instability. I spoke to her while researching my book on vibrant communities because I was curious about her experience with community models of leadership to solve complex problems. In her work, Barbara uses practices to engage everyone involved to find the best solutions. She believes a truly collaborative approach, which includes everyone’s voice, is much more effective than the typical top-down approach because “hierarchy does not build community and consensus.”
She facilitates large meetings by bringing together a wide range of voices rather than just a few dominant ones into the conversation. Barbara’s leadership skills unearth the existing wisdom in the room, while bringing the necessary people to the table and providing them with the data needed to make the best decisions.
A community-oriented model, which recognizes the leadership skills of many, prioritizes relationships as the principal change agent. Appointed leaders facilitate relationship-building and elevate others to take initiative; this kind of leadership is most needed now. Unfortunately, as a culture, we remain enamored with old views of hierarchical leadership and skewed narratives which fit a myth more than reality.
Vibrant communities have more dynamic, relational models of leadership than organizations where leadership is in the hands of a few people. A truly community-focused model engages all members’ participation, and everyone takes responsibility for showing leadership at different times. Someone who might not fit the mold of a leader can show up with precisely what the group needs for a particular task, with a novel take on the situation.
While writing this essay, the phrase “change how you see, see how you change” kept looping through my mind. While there is a lot of focus on bringing diverse voices and ideas to the table, our competitive culture continues to hold tight to a narrow view of what a good leader looks like. Old visions of leadership don’t lead to inclusion and transformation.
There is a growing trend of telling the muted stories of unrecognized leaders, which is heartening. For example, women’s contributions and discoveries were typically erased, pushed to the margins as footnotes, or stolen in science. Women (and men) of color were even more minor footnotes in the annals of scientific discovery. Truthfully retelling history is the first step, but more progress is needed. For example, Katherine Johnson , a mathematician whose calculations were instrumental in discovering the path for a rocket to enter space (portrayed in the movie Hidden Figures) would likely still not be perceived as a recognized leader if she spent long hours working in solitude or wasn’t the department head.
Qualities more characteristic of women’s leadership styles – such as collaboration, service, and sharing – are now recognized as skills most needed today. Yet, paradoxically, there remains inequality in how society generally perceives men and women in leadership roles.
For centuries, there have been cultural biases about leadership that are resistant to change. It’s easy to point fingers at “the good old boys’ club.” But the best way to be part of the needed change is to examine our own resistance to it. We might be surprised at what we find if we are honest in our self-explorations.
As a psychologist, I worked in psychotherapy with an older woman who had been a reporter for a prominent newsroom at a time when women were assigned only to what was considered “puffier” departments, such as lifestyles or fashion. They could write about crafts but not more “serious” topics like art. My client spent her entire career finding ways to work around this bias so that she could write the kind of stories that interested her. And yet, years later, in her 80s, she found no contradiction in telling me that female physicians were less competent than men. Old habits of mind die hard.
While this example might seem glaring, many of us have more subtle but still tenacious perceptual frameworks that are part of the resistance to change.
Two weeks ago, I had a great conversation with Bart Campolo for his podcast “Humanize Me”. We discussed my findings of what makes a community vibrant, and the conversation turned toward the leaders who founded some of the communities in my book. Bart noted that it takes a certain kind of leader to build a community with momentum, “that not everyone can be such a leader.”
While not everyone can be such a leader, everyone can lead, and every community needs different people with different abilities. For example, charismatic leaders who have the ability to spark interest and take initial bold steps are only sometimes equipped for sustained action that can create a more enduring foundation. Or they may be skilled at bringing people together but not at promoting healthy relationships between people. With too much reliance on one leader, communities and organizations are at risk for shining brightly and burning out quickly. Or they risk being competitive but not relational, unable to bring out the best in people to work together.
“Founders” cannot be successful without other community members exercising leadership. Leaders of vibrant communities give credit where credit is due. They are wise enough to do what they do well and get out of the way so others can lead in unique ways.
We give accolades to leaders skilled at presenting an idea and drawing people and energy to it. They may be good at soliciting resources so that people gather around them in ways that generate even more interest. But building a vibrant community or organization comes from those who show up and buy into the mission, offering unique skills and initiative. With them, other resources, including financial ones, follow.
Let’s tell more real stories of leadership, and stories about the origins of organizations, communities, discoveries, and inventiveness in general. Too often, they are skewed toward the importance of one person at the expense of many. Let’s shine a light on the error of the mind that continues to yearn for an individual (usually a man) to lead us out of the wilderness. Of course, we can appreciate people who can take their creative ideas and draw others in to share their vision. But to stop there and not expand our understanding of leadership ends up underutilizing human potential and diminishing the vibrancy of our communities. Let’s evolve in our understanding of how change occurs. And when we do, we are more likely to step up and participate more fully in the world we envision.
Reflections: What We Can Envision Becomes Reality
What qualities do you possess as a leader? Are you action-oriented, collaborative, communicative? Do you have empathy or an ability to inspire others?
Where are you confident in taking leadership? What, if anything, holds you back? Think of concrete ways you have taken leadership. What are some areas you’d like to exercise more leadership skills?
Think about how you might respond differently to a company or community’s accomplishments and struggles while being led by different types of leaders. For example, a woman, a man, or someone from a very different cultural background.
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