“Our language fails us when we discuss and practice leadership. We talk about ‘leaders’ in organizations or politics when we actually mean people in positions of management or political authority. We constantly confound leadership and authority in nearly every journalistic or scholarly article written on leadership in the last hundred years.” – Ron Heifetz
Heifetz’s point of view is our experience. We all have witnessed people with org chart authority who failed to exercise leadership. We have also witnessed people buried deep in the org chart who chose to lead when they had little authority, no followers or allies who encouraged or voted support for them.
These people often start alone.
Do this exercise: reflect on your own life and list the moments when you choose to raise your hand and lead without authority. Write them down.
You just listed your history of leading without authority.
Four Distinctions For Leading
- Authority is providing direction, setting norms, resolving conflict and protecting people. The org chart is a map of authority.
- Leading is a choice, not a role or position. The org chart is not a map of leadership.
- Leading is an activity. It’s about action. Sometimes we lead and sometimes we don’t lead.
- Leadership is mobilizing and activating people to address their wicked problems. Covid-19 is a wicked problem with no clear answer. The people trying to work the solution are also part of the problem. Any solution will take more time than we like. On the road to a solution, there will be losses. As I write this, Wikipedia reports 185,494 deaths due to the virus.
During this Covid-19 pandemic, we are receiving daily lessons in the use of authority and the exercise of leadership. Last night, I watched Jersey 4 Jersey. It was a one-hour fundraising program to generate financial support for frontline medical teams, first responders and volunteers battling the virus in New Jersey. It featured Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi, Halsey, Tony Bennett, Fountains of Wayne, Sza and others singing songs. Nice music.
The real hook was the profiles of courage by nurses, doctors, firefighters, volunteers and owners of restaurants who are cooking meals daily for those in need. I cried all through the hour. All of these people are stepping up and leading in both frightening and courageous ways. All of them are exceeding their limited authority and making the decision to lead in big and small ways. Each decision to lead is driven by trying to save a life.
We are in a hard period that we all want to get behind us. We count on our authority figures to provide guidance, a current reality check and advise us on how to be safe. Some of these authority figures are doing a solid job. Others, not so much. What we understand is the virus doesn’t give a damn about authority. It does what it wants.
The call is for more heads, hearts and hands rising up to lead. Not all of us are frontline responders but we are essential to handling this wicked problem. This concept of leading means our core task is to create the conditions for community engagement. We do this through the choice and power we have to name the challenge, and then design and convene the gathering.
The leadership action is always the same: name the work, design the processes to do that work and then listen.
The world will whisper her needs.