Whether we seek to eliminate health disparities or prepare all children to enter school ready to learn, we do not have the leadership we need.  The heroic model of leadership blinds us to the fact that untapped leadership potential exists everywhere.  The dominant leadership model assumes that training individuals will better prepare them to lead strong organizations; and in turn strong organizations will produce better community-level results, but this model falls well short. Reaching the scale and scope of leadership needed to address complex issues requires new approaches to leadership development. Our focus should be on finding, cultivating, and connecting leadership everywhere it exists; across all generations, races, communities, and organizational levels. To activate this untapped leadership potential, leadership thinking and practice need to shift in three fundamental directions:

From Individuals to Communities

Leadership is not primarily a capacity or quality that an individual possesses; it is a relational process that occurs in groups, communities and networks. 

We can see tangible outcomes when we nurture leadership in communities.  A great example is the work of the Promotora Institute in Nogales, Arizona.  The Institute was founded by local women in the community who people turned to for health advice.  Promotoras lead by listening and building trust. They look for strengths and help people make the connections they need to control and improve their lives.  Promotoras have succeeded in supporting communities with few health resources to become healthier – even when their success is not widely recognized.  As one promotora said, “Some business people tell me, ‘You are not efficient.’ I say, ‘We are more efficient than you could possibly imagine, because our job is to listen, find out how much of an intervention people need and connect them to solutions.’”  This ability to listen and relate is at the heart of the new leadership model.

From Organizations to Networks

While leadership in organizations is positional, individual, top-down, and directive; leadership in networks is relational, collective, bottom-up, and emergent.  We have an opportunity to apply network principles to our leadership efforts and tap into networks as powerful sources of innovation.

One story that illustrates the power of networks is the approach CEO Paul Levy and Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital took to respond to a $20 million deficit in 2009.  Instead of convening his senior leadership team to make a decision about layoffs, Levy called a meeting with all employees.  He didn’t come in with a plan; he came in with a concern.  He suggested a potentially unpopular idea: protecting low-paying jobs by reducing the salary and benefits of higher paid employees – including many in the auditorium.  To his surprise the room erupted in applause.  His candid request led to countless suggestions for cost savings.  He tapped into the power of the employee network; as a result they all jointly owned the solution.  Levy modeled openness and transparency; and trusted the process to produce positive outcomes.

From Silos To Partnerships

We typically exercise and develop leadership in silos.  We have separate workforces, distinct cultures, different ways of framing problems and defining solutions.  Yet, this way of leading has not produced health or educational equity. Why? We have failed to recognize that producing these results requires multi-stakeholder approaches that cut across sectors and disciplines.

The African Public Health Leadership and Systems Innovation Initiative is an example of a multi-sectoral approach.  This Initiative, currently being piloted in Namibia, seeks to transform a highly siloed health system.  Multi-stakeholder teams of national health leaders, senior government officials, local community health providers, and representatives from business and civil society engage in problem-based learning that generates and tests innovative solutions. The group is guided through a leadership development process that breaks down barriers. Something as simple as using each other’s first names, not titles, transforms how people see themselves in relationship to each other.  Transcending hierarchies and silos opens up new possibilities for addressing systemic issues that have defied solutions in the past. 

Conclusion

Leadership emerges through relationships. We need to focus on building relationships and building trust.  We also need to create the conditions for people to self-organize.  And finally, we need to break down the silos and establish partnerships with other groups that are pursuing similar outcomes.

We live in a time of great peril and opportunity, a time that calls for a radical change in how we think about leadership.  My colleagues and I have joined forces with key innovators to promote leadership approaches that are more inclusive, networked, and collective.  We encourage you to join the discussion and help us promote the leadership of the future. 


References:
Heifetz, Ronald et al. Leadership in a (Permanent) Crisis. Harvard Business Review, 2009
Seligman, Mikaela. A Reflection on How Social Networks Can Become a Powerful Tool To Meet Basic Needs and Build Momentum for Change. The Diarist Project by The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2006

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