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Working with others: Creating the capacity to exercise leadership

In this special blog series, Staley School of Leadership Studies instructor Tamara Bauer considers an approach to teaching leadership that can further develop our capacity to exercise leadership during the COVID-19 outbreak.

 

Mainstream media often highlights examples of leadership that feature individuals doing something for or to others. (Example: an individual comes to “save the people and save the day”). While there is a time and place to help someone by doing something for them (like in a crisis), there is even more power for long-term transformation when we shift our perspectives and actions to exercise leadership WITH others. This shift can better create the capacity for all of us to engage and for all of us to exercise leadership.

Previous blog posts in this series have framed the need for leadership activity to be more collective, relational and community-driven in order to make progress on the complex challenges we are experiencing with COVID-19. (See posts here). A common good approach to leadership requires intentional perspectives and practices where people share responsibility to “create the conditions that enable others to achieve shared purpose in the face of uncertainty” (Ganz, 2010, p. 527).  We need more people engaging in leadership activity, but how?  Working with others is a practice of leadership, and also develops others’ capacity to engage in the work of leadership.

As a leadership educator, I not only want to teach leadership, but also to practice the behaviors, approaches and theories I teach. I have found that exercising leadership with others, rather than to or for, is a series of small and conscious choices to create “a container” for a different kind of engagement and capacity building to emerge. The ways in which I exercise leadership with others further develops others’ capacity to engage in acts of leadership.

As we think about the many spaces of our leadership work, how do we intentionally create “a container” where we maximize and engage each person within the system? And, how does that container further develop others’ capacity to exercise leadership?

Below are a series of insights, questions and examples to guide the application of exercising leadership with others into practice.

Understand the container/system

How do we better understand the groups/systems we are in and consider ways to engage it more fully? Who is part of the system/group?  Whose voices are represented?  Whose voices are missing or who are we not hearing?  As you continually diagnose the system and the stakeholders within the system, you can consider how you might position yourself, your voice and the way you take up space to orient yourself differently to be with the others in the system.

  • I approach each system I am part of (committee meeting, conference room, or classroom) as representing 100%. How can I understand the people within the system in order to invite all people into the 100%? For instance, in the classroom if I take up 60% of the space by talking to students, that only leaves 40% of the space to engage. Seeing a system as fully engaging with one another at 100% allows me to work at continually diagnosing the ways and how people can contribute.

Reorient the space

How do we better share the space with the people in our system? How do we invite them into the work in a way that raises their own engagement, creativity, and purpose? While using your authority and power directed as to and for might be more efficient (such as in delegation), we lose the opportunity to co-create and drive change from within. We must be more conscious of the ways we take up space and work to shift to share space with others.

  • As an instructor it would be easy for me to make all of the decisions about the design and structure of a course. However, if I want to invite students more fully into the space, what decisions can they be part of making? Beginning with their voice – their aspirations, concerns, and ideas for how they best want to learn and engage in the system – creates a space that is shared by all.  Paying attention to room set-up, such as pulling chairs into a circle and sitting with students, will signal their voice is needed in a more intentional way.

Ask more questions

What questions can we ask that will invite people more fully into the space? To feel connected and part of the container? To engage more fully? The art of asking powerful questions is key to co-creating spaces with others.  Carefully framing and asking questions that move beyond the technical information, but rather, reaches people in a way that invites them into the process.

  • As I make observations about the system and container we are creating, I must ask questions that address how the system is functioning. What is working well about how we are engaging? What could we do more of (or less of) to make progress on our shared goals? When I have the urge to offer an answer or a solution, it serves as an indicator for me to pause and reframe my thought into a question to share back with the group.

Listen and be genuinely curious 

How can we momentarily slow down and coach our minds to be curious about what others share? Don’t just listen to respond, but to to truly understand. How can we ask questions and be genuinely interested in the response as to how it might influence the system moving forward? Working to pause our own thoughts to listen and to be comfortable with silence will create the space for other voices, ideas and opportunities.

  • If I observe someone in the system not engaging fully, I shift my perspective/stance to partner with that person. Often through one-on-one dialogue, I ask questions about their perspective in the system, with the intent of being curious to learn more. Through perspective taking, I better understand our system and can ask additional questions to invite their ideas and insights into the process.

Develop an asset-based approach

People are our greatest asset to making progress on the challenges of today. How can we approach people and systems with an asset-based lens? To trust that when we are engaged in meaningful ways, people will contribute, collaborate and create. By working with others, we create the opportunity to develop the capacity of the people within the system.

  • At the end of the semester, I often hear students comment, “We were so lucky.  Our class was unique and different in how we came together; it will not happen again like this.” However, I ask them to consider that it was not by chance of good company, but because we oriented ourselves differently with one another. Through intentional design and practices, we created a way to be with one another in ways that asked each person to bring their full selves. The conversations were more meaningful, more challenging and thus, more connected. The investment of each person created a container where we collectively developed our capacity to learn and lead.

Shifting our perspective and actions to work with people, rather than for or to people, allows for new ways of being and thinking by bringing the wholeness of people to the forefront. We create containers that engage more people fully. Those spaces then develop the capacity of people and systems to exercise leadership more collectively and collaboratively. Ultimately this shift will position us differently to address the challenges and opportunities we face.

 

Resources

Block, P. (2009). Community: the structure of belonging – the structure of belonging  Berrett-koehler.

Clayton, P. H., & Ash, S. L. (2004). Shifts in perspective: capitalizing on the counter-normative nature of service-learning. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 11(1), 59–70.

Ganz, M. (2010). Leading change: leadership, organization, and social movement. In N. Nohria & R. Khurana (Eds.), Handbook of leadership theory and practice (pp. 527-561). Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press.

Heifetz, R. A., Grashow, A., & Linsky, M. (2009). The practice of adaptive leadership: tools and tactics for changing your organization and the world. Harvard Business Press.

O’Malley, E., Cebula, A., & Kansas Leadership Center. (2015). Your leadership edge: lead any time, anywhere. KLC Press, Kansas Leadership Center.

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