By Gil McRae, FWRI Director
As I write this, we are about to undergo an election that will determine our government leaders for (at least) the next few years. We all have our own concept of what it means to be a leader. If you ask people to name a great leader, they will often list political or social figures who led large groups of people pushing for fundamental change at a large scale. What we often overlook is that great leaders are all around us and it has very little to do with professional stature or one’s position in an organization. Leadership is more a state of mind than a title tied to a certain level of responsibility. This is particularly true in organizations like FWC and FWRI where our mode of operation is typically collaborative, rather than strictly hierarchal.
In organizations like ours, our success depends on every team member developing their capacity to be good leaders. In this way, we create a culture of leadership by fostering and encouraging the development and recognition of leadership attributes at all levels of our organization. While the work we do varies widely, from a leadership perspective there are some key concepts, attitudes and behaviors that define successful leaders at every level:
- Ownership. When we take ownership in something, we have a personal stake in ensuring that a problem is dealt with, a task is completed, or a conflict is resolved. We all have a sense of ownership relative to our individual work responsibilities or projects but taking ownership in a leadership sense is more than that. Often during our workday, we are approached with issues or questions for which we do not have an answer or that may not be directly related to our line of work. The inquiry may come from the public, a coworker, or a colleague from another agency. It is very easy to dismiss the question with responses like “You are asking the wrong person”, or “that is not my job”. These types of answers reflect a localized sense of ownership. Truly successful organizations have taken the sense of ownership at the task or project level and translated it to a larger level in which all staff feel that they are important contributors to the organization’s mission. In these organizations, “I don’t know but I will find out” or “Let me help you find your answer” replace the responses listed above. In large organizations, particularly in government service where the profit motive does not apply, it is very easy to stop caring. True leaders show the ability to fight through these doldrums and maintain their commitment to quality work and a sense of share mission.
- Self – awareness. There are two aspects to this quality that contribute to one’s leadership potential – both falling under a set of attributes sometimes referred to as Emotional Intelligence. First, good leaders have an ability to step outside the constraints of their own thinking and see themselves and their organization from other’s perspective. Most of us have periodically re-adjusted our thinking on an issue after re-examining it from someone else’s perspective. It sounds simple, but too often we are unaware of our personal and organizational biases that shape our perspective on an issue. Good leaders have a knack for knowing when to step back, drop these biases, and approach an issue or problem from a different angle. One way to think about this is to make sure you “buy your own argument” – assume the role of those you are trying to convince on an issue and critique yourself. This step can greatly enhance your success rate and help refine requests that are not well thought out. Secondly, good leaders are keenly aware of the context within which they and their coworkers operate. A leader cannot succeed remaining uninformed about the structure or workings of the business or agency they work within. Remaining continually up to date and informed is not extra work for those operating within a culture of leadership, it is part of their day-to-day workload and ingrained in their thinking. Much like we tend to be isolated in our thinking due to our own biased perspective, organizations often become islands unto themselves because the people that sustain the organization develop biases borne out of a tendency to look inward rather than outward. Don’t wait for information to come to you – seek it out.
- Optimism. – Good leaders set the tone for those around them. The ability to remain positive and upbeat even in the face of multiple challenges is often the difference between an effective response and a knee-jerk reaction which only compounds the problem. There is a strong connection between optimism and self-confidence. People with strong leadership skills tend to be more secure and self-confident in their abilities. This does not mean they are arrogant, rather they are aware of their strengths and limitations and carry with them a self-assurance that not only tells them what skills they need to bring to bear to address an issue, but (and much more importantly) also when to seek outside help on a problem.
- Open communication. In a collaborative organization like ours, the quality of one’s work, and the quality of decision-making, is linked to open communication. In an unhealthy organization, information is horded and only shared when it is advantageous to do so. This leads to poor decisions, since quality decisions depend on up to date, accurate information. A supervisor who constrains who can communicate with whom and on what subjects is unlikely to be successful and fosters resentment within their group. Simply put decisions should be made at a level (or by a person) with the best information available to make that decision – and communicating openly helps ensure that this happens.
Successful organizations build these leadership qualities at every level – you do not have to lead a large group to be a leader among your co-workers. I know that I often struggle with these competencies myself, but I continually remind myself that the key to successful leadership has little to do with authority bestowed on a position from above and much more to do with an individual’s personal commitment and character. By cultivating leadership behaviors and promoting a culture of leadership we can leverage the influence of leaders at all levels to build a stronger, more effective organization.