More Reviews, just in time for summer

It’s never too early to start planning out your reading calendar.

To help, I have some comments on books I have read recently, starting with a book by someone I am glad to call a friend and colleague, Kansas Leadership Center Director Ed O’Malley. The book, For the Common Good, is about civic leadership, and I have posts about it today and tomorrow: first, today, thoughts about how we understand–and misunderstand–leadership, and, tomorrow, a plea for the urgency of our need for civic leadership up to the challenges that confront us.

The central premise of the book, and core to the Leadership Center’s approach, is the contention that leadership is for everyone, an activity, not a position.

And, if everyone and anyone can lead, then the next step, clearly, is to think about what leadership looks like for us, in a very personal way.

I have never really considered myself much of a leader. Leadership is a force for change, and, while I am proud and committed to be part of movements for social change, I more often play the role of foot soldier, rather than marshal.

But this book has me thinking somewhat differently about that self-characterization, and about the extent to which I have been content to be led, rather than stepping up and stepping out as a leader myself.

In the midst of this soul-searching, some of the questions that I’m pondering:

  • For the Common Good exhorts all leaders to be aware of our ‘defaults’ and open to the potential that we may need to actively work against them. It’s conscious choices that make the difference between compelling, effective leadership and coasting, often, and the process of combating our own inertia begins with self-awareness. For me, this is thinking about how much I love living in the comfort of technical problems, where I can lull myself into thinking that I have some measure of control. I need to get more comfortable with chaos, which, for me, has become harder as I balance my public and private roles; since my home life can be somewhat chaotic, my public tolerance for the same has declined.
  • Related to this idea of resetting our defaults, we need to know the story others tell about us. I am acutely aware of how, in the roles I play now, I get less good feedback than I used to–my students have obvious incentives not to honestly confront me with my failings, and the consultant role distorts this feedback loop somewhat, too, particularly when someone else is paying the bill. But getting this perspective is critical, so I need to find ways to cultivate it.
  • Leaders have to attend to process, even when, like for me, we much prefer to focus on content. How people come together matters. How decisions are made matters. And how people are feeling about all of those things matters. We can’t navigate those realms without taking the time to ‘check’ our processes for change. For me, that means resetting my own default that tends to rush to decision point. Knowing that is the first step toward doing something about it.
  • A specific type of process-attending that is crucial is the ability to speak to loss. After all, if leadership is about sparking change, well, something is always lost in change. We have to resist the temptation to label as apathy what is more correctly understood as concern about the opportunity costs of change. Helping people to move past each requires very different interventions.

I know it’s not necessarily ‘beach reading’, but For the Common Good uses real stories of leaders (in Kansas) to illustrate leadership principles, and I found it very readable and, obviously, engaging. I’d love to hear from those who have worked with the Leadership Center, or Ed, or read the book, or who have other leadership recommendations for me, as I continue to think about how this particular journey unfolds in my own life.

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