Leadership Crises and Temperature Failures

My thinking about leadership, sparked by the book For the Common Good, hasn’t just been limited to probing what leadership should look like in my own life.

I’ve also been thinking about our need for public leadership, on a grant scale, to confront the adaptive challenges we face.

Leadership requires choosing among competing values, and that’s hard for a lot of people to do, particularly when they are trying to simultaneously satisfy many different actors. I’m thinking about elected officials, obviously, but also nonprofit leaders and others to whom we look for leadership on the core problems plaguing our society.

For the Common Good talks about a ‘conspiracy to avoid’ dealing with our toughest issues and I thought, yeah, that’s a lot what Congress looks like these days. Or nonprofit staff meetings.

The parts of the book that I found the most profound, even revolutionary, are about the need for leadership equal to the hardest challenges we face. That means not just new learning and new application–thereby surpassing a technical challenge–but also shared responsibility.

We can only have a chance to solve these adaptive problems if we actively seek out tough interpretations of what we’re seeing, instead of defaulting to a search for benign explanations.

We can only bring enough people along with us if we raise the temperature so much that reluctant ‘followers’ feel compelled to act. That means organizing, since little can raise the heat like grassroots pressure.

And we can only hold ourselves together during the difficult work of meeting these adaptive problems head on if we have the ‘bridging social capital’ that can make adaptive change more palatable. This, of course, is another way that inequality hurts us.

A really cool thing for me was that the book featured David Toland, whose work with Thrive Allen County in southeast Kansas has been part of my evaluation work for the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City, specifically on some of these points about the type of leadership that is needed for a community to embrace change in pursuit of progress around adaptive challenges (in this case, obesity rates and poor health outcomes in the community). He found data that reveal crisis, but a culture of complacency. So he faced a leadership task of galvanizing momentum and supporting people through change, before he could tackle the substance of the problem.

The question, then, is of course, “Where have all the leaders gone?”

But this isn’t a post bemoaning the loss of ‘statesmen’. I am not nostalgic for any particular time past, nor do I believe that any particular period or culture has a lock on this kind of courageous, visionary, public leadership.

No, I’m not thinking as much about the ‘who’–who will be the leaders ready and willing to carry the mantle–but, instead, about the ‘why’.

As in, why don’t we demand this of those who would be our leaders?

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