In my previous blog on “Writing Leadership Essays” I painted myself into a corner. Introducing the “Problem-Action-Result” formula as a tool for writing these essays, I presented initiative and creative problem solving as the qualities of leadership par excellence. I then had to admit that they were not unique to leadership stories; they are shared with what I called “initiative stories” - those in which we use creative problem solving to deliver results as individuals rather than as members of a group. In this blog I want to take a different tack, one that I hope will help readers explore a broader conception of leadership.
Individual and Collective Goals
As you begin to draft your leadership essay, reflect on the goals of your actions. What is the impact that you hope to have? For whom? How will you know that you’ve been successful in this endeavor? Be as specific as possible. It may be helpful to articulate your goals using the S.M.A.R.T. goals formula (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound). Here I specifically want to focus on the element of achievability. Call goals that can be achieved by individuals acting alone “individual goals.” Individual goals require initiative (the ability to start an endeavor) and, perhaps just as importantly, what one of my undergraduate professors called “finishiative” (the ability to bring an endeavor to an appropriate conclusion). They may require creative problem solving, resilience and grit. They may require domain expertise or a growth mindset. These are also the qualities of effective leaders, and part of demonstrating our leadership potential may involve telling stories of individual endeavors in which we have developed and displayed the characteristics we will carry into future leadership endeavors. However, the pursuit of individual goals does not involve leadership per se. Rather, leadership is required for the pursuit of what we might call “collective goals” - those that cannot be achieved by an individual acting alone, but only through the collective effort of a group of people working in concert. Call a group of people working toward the achievement of collective goals an organization, where this is understood broadly to include anything from a student organization to scientific labs, institutions, companies, or widely distributed networks such as professional organizations. Leadership is the set of abilities needed to create, maintain, and guide organizations to deliver results in the pursuit of collective goals. In addition to the characteristics listed above, leadership requires vision (the ability to articulate collective goals in ways that inspire collective action), strategy (the ability to design an effective course of collective action in pursuit of those goals), and care for the culture of the organization and its members. This is an open-ended list. Before proceeding to the next section, take a few minutes to jot down answers to these questions. What is an organization in which you have or are currently exercising leadership? What are the collective goals of this organization? How have your actions contributed to the organization’s pursuit of these goals? Again, keep in mind that leadership is not only exercised by those at the top of the organizational chart (i.e. by those in “leadership positions”). Anyone in the organization who contributes significantly to its collective action in one of the ways described above can be said to be exercising leadership.
Leadership, DEI, and Well-Being
One of the best books I read this year was U-M professor Scott Page’s The Diversity Bonus. The book lays out what he calls the “business case for diversity.” The approach has its limitations, which to Prof. Page’s credit he includes in the introduction and critical appendices by fellow scholars. What I found most useful is that he tackles head-on the often unspoken assumption that organizations must sacrifice excellence to “make room for” diversity. To the contrary, Prof. Page demonstrates that in tasks that require non-repetitive, complex problem solving organizations with the greatest cognitive diversity will achieve the best results. He then discusses the complex links between cognitive diversity and identity diversity. Again, there are important aspects of equity and justice that are not captured in this argument, but I like that it provides us with a way to think about diversity as a contributing factor in excellence rather than as a competing value. Just as importantly, it points to efforts to create inclusive and psychologically safe organizational cultures (as defined by Harvard’s Amy Edmondson) as needed to unlock the full benefits of diverse teams. Organizations in which members are not included in key efforts or do not feel safe enough to contribute from diverse perspectives will not reap the benefits of cognitive diversity.
What does all this have to do with leadership? If the work of leaders is to create and maintain organizations that can achieve collective ends, then a crucial part of this work is creating diverse and inclusive organizations. Future leaders need to think about how they are preparing themselves for these aspects of leadership, including increasing their knowledge and articulation of DEI goals as well as the development of the emotional and social intelligence needed to lead in diverse organizations. This is true of future leaders in business, in STEM, in government, and in the nonprofit sector.
Returning to your own notes, how have you contributed to efforts to diversify your organization’s membership or executive team? How have you worked to create an inclusive and psychologically safe environment in which all members can contribute from different points of view? What were some advances that were made toward your collective goals as a result of these efforts?
Achieving Results by Achieving Balance
Similar points can be made about efforts to create a sustainable work culture that balances the organization’s drive to achieve collective goals with the well-being and care of organizational members. Indeed, the role of a leader is often to know when to guide an organization to one of two equally important but conflicting goals. An organization that always pushes for 100% efficiency in achieving its goals will likely burn out its members, creating high turnover or decreased productivity. However, an organization that focuses exclusively on care of individuals - unless that is its purpose - will be ineffective in achieving its collective goals. Leaders must find the right moments and right ways to balance both values.
This is the model of leadership developed by U-M’s Sanger Center for Leadership using the Competing Values Framework of Robert Quinn and Kim Cameron (both in the Ross School of Business Center for Positive Organizations).
Returning one last time to your brainstorming list, ask yourself for each leadership activity you’ve jotted down: What is the value at which this action aimed? Where would you place it in the leadership model? What is the competing value within our organization? What is the counterbalanced action that is required? What are the appropriate times and means for each of these actions? For example, if you pushed for a unity of vision and strategic action towards the organization’s goals, how did you foster diverse and inclusive participation in that strategic vision process? Conversely, if you have made significant contributions to diversifying the organization, how have you fostered unity of vision and purpose within this diverse group? Are there other important elements of your leadership that don’t fit into this model? What additions or changes would you make to tailor the model to your organization?
Putting This All in a Story
Hopefully by this point you’ve engaged in a much more robust brainstorming process about your leadership story. You’ve also likely included some things that you didn’t do, but wish that you had. That’s great! The purpose of a leadership story is to demonstrate potential, which requires cultivating a growth mindset, the ability to critically analyze our actions, listen to feedback, and learn lessons about how we will do things differently in the future. Should all that go into your leadership essay? Rhetorically speaking, we don’t want to “lead with the chin.” The most convincing leadership stories will still be those in which your various contributions to the organization helped it to achieve important, impressive, and preferably measurable goals. For this reason, you may still want to organize your essay around some version of the Problem-Action-Results formula and save the lessons you learned for future leadership endeavors as part of your interview preparation materials. What I hope this blog has accomplished is to think more precisely about “problems” as the collective goals of the organization and “actions” as the many things that leaders do to create diverse, healthy, and effective organizations capable of achieving sustainable results.