Leadership is a loaded word. It often implies power, authority, and a straight line toward a goal. In practice, there are few straight lines for those exercising leadership. Power and authority can complicate matters…especially if those aren’t typically associated with your role or job title. Here are three underlying principles based on the premise that the work of leadership is to create positive change:
Untangle authority from leadership
To be clear, it is difficult to separate leadership from authority. We naturally look to people in authority to fix our problems, or wait for direction from those in power positions. In exercising leadership, we often lean on whatever authority we have to influence others. Though effective, this view of leadership is limiting. Think about leadership as an activity or verb, and not as a position or noun. Great companies develop and encourage leadership at every level of the organization. And as Alice Walker famously said, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”
Make room for more ideas
Leadership also requires the ability to adapt and quickly identify challenges and opportunities. Having only one “right” answer leaves little room for new ideas, new ways of executing, or new learning. Most importantly, it limits how others can be engaged and mobilized in the process. This process requires the ability to hold multiple truths at once. When we spend time understanding and acknowledging other perspectives (which is not the same as agreeing with them!), you gain opportunity to bring others along with you and find new ways of getting to the same goal.
Make your purpose transparent
In order to mobilize people, we need to gain trust by being transparent about our intentions. Anchor your actions in the greater purpose and focus your communication on values. In other words, speak more to “why” and less on “what.” Purpose is not a strategic plan. When influencing others, start with why you want to create change before you tell others what you plan to do. Many leaders skip this step. Often, people find that there is more common ground in the “why” even if there is disagreement over the “what.” Holding to purpose will also help you set priorities, make difficult decisions, and stay committed in the face of adversity.
With these three core principles in mind, the difficult work of leadership can be more accessible to everyone, and the core work of engaging and mobilizing others becomes the unifying process to collectively create change.
Judy Le is the president of TakeRoot, LLC, a consulting company focused on leadership development and coaching. She holds a masters degree from The University of Texas at Austin and a bachelors degree from Rice University. Le is currently a Glasscock School instructor for the upcoming spring course The Art and Practice of Influencing Without Authority.