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Robert F. Long, Ph.D.,
ASU Lodestar Center
There is no leadership, as typically defined, today! The models, theories, and approaches to leadership that have been espoused over the past 100 years have steadily lost effectiveness around the globe. While many will suggest that the traditional frameworks for leadership have never worked, I only suggest here that they no longer work for the changing contexts in which people find themselves. The failures of leadership are found at every turn — from the need for attention of those who aspire to lead to the need to control those who do take the lead.
The "great man theory," among others, is irrelevant in modern context. So, for purposes of this post, let's focus on what leaders should and shouldn't do. I will leave it to you to see the differences in those who you've identified as leaders. Let's talk about what the world needs of future leaders.
Leaders should listen — not talk. They should ask questions and listen all the way to the end of what others have to say. They shouldn't have "the" answers and be valued for being "right." Instead, leaders should have the capacity to discover great answers and amazing ideas. They should also be skilled at helping those ideas become a reality.
Great leaders shouldn't be the ones solving the problems, but should help others generate new notions of what's possible, as well as helping find creative and smarter alternatives. Of course, leaders ought to have good ideas to contribute, but they need to focus their efforts on encouraging groups to share with one another, as well as generating commitment and effort from team members.
Dependence on one person to lead puts the effort, process, and goals at risk. Doing so makes leadership efforts subject to all of the weaknesses of the human condition, and even more to the limits of individual capacities. As one of the corporate sector's most successful leaders of "the new order" put it, "Committing to building great relationships is the only way for the enterprise to reach its fullest potential." It's a leader's job to make sure great relationships are built, and that those involved in the relationships are free to lead together.
I'm not talking about a collective approach, or some other social structure for leadership. I'm talking about the core of those great relationships, found in the genuinely caring, supportive, trusting, and valued connections among those involved in the experience. Rather than trying to create a structure or formal process for leadership, the focus needs to be on relating, sharing, and engaging.
Leaders should help people feel safe enough to interact and be valued in their creative contributions. This helps make shared leadership both real and applied. When I had one of my first titled leadership roles in my career, I worried about how I would know if I was an effective leader. I asked my father, and he replied, "You will know you are a great leader when you have given leadership to everyone else."
Words to live by.
Bob Long is the Visiting Distinguished Professor of Nonprofit Leadership at Murray State University. Previously Bob retired from a 16-year career with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, where he served as Vice President for Programs.
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Click here to read "How my mother and AmeriCorps made me a better man" — a post from young leader Michael Soto about his experiences with ASU Lodestar's Public Allies Arizona program.