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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.



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.

Briefing: Civic Capacity and the Coronavirus

In this special blog series, Staley School of Leadership Studies partner David Chrislip considers how associated leadership studies and civic engagement literatures contributes understanding and supports the exercise of leadership during the COVID-19 outbreak.


“Sometimes change is so vast and dislocating that it is hard to tell disaster from opportunity.”

The Economist, April 11, 2020

“The larger project, however, is to increase the resilience of American society.”

The New York Times, April 9, 2020

The Crisis

As the coronavirus continues to devastate communities across the nation, planning for the aftermath is beginning to take center stage. As horrendous as the initial shock has been, it is but the first of many cascading impacts that must be addressed. Economic decline (collapse, in some places), increases in inequality in health and wealth, inadequate capacity of institutions to respond, failing health and education systems, and so on, will follow, rending the social fabric of families, communities, states, and the nation. Trillions of dollars will be allocated and spent by federal, state, and local government agencies and foundations to address these challenges. Some communities will be able to put these resources to good use. Others will become more dependent on outside entities (like governments and foundations) for their survival and less resilient in the face of future challenges. The longer-term response to the effects of this pandemic will be as important as the initial response to its manifesting symptoms.

Given the immensity of the damage and the colossal investment needed to repair it, ensuring that subsequent responses enhance the capacity – the resilience – of communities and regions to respond to future challenges and disruptions becomes imperative. An emerging definition of community resilience goes beyond merely coping with an external shock like the coronavirus and returning to the status quo ante. Radical theories see resilience as a dynamic process, not of bouncing back, but of reinvention and transformation. A systemic response is more powerful than a symptomatic one.

This is adaptive work that involves power, politics, radical inclusion, authentic engagement, and mutual learning. Civic capacity brings these elements together to make progress. Those who study how communities work know why some respond better than others to disruptions like the coronavirus: they are more resilient because they have greater civic capacity. This disaster offers an opportunity to enhance the civic capacity of this country’s communities and regions reclaiming the vital role of civic life in shaping this country’s future.

The Crucible of Change

Over the past two decades, there has been a distinct shift in thinking about where the impetus for adaptation and change should come from in neighborhoods, communities, and regions. Perhaps recognizing the limitations of top-down, externally driven approaches, foundations, government agencies, and other civic actors now aspire (at least rhetorically) to encourage and support community driven responses to adaptive challenges such as health, education, housing, policing, and other public crises that require the community to adapt or to be resilient.

Three premises inform this thinking about community-driven change:

  1. It is more effective in making lasting progress;
  2. It is more inclusive and egalitarian, therefore more democratic;
  3. Communities with the capacity for community driven change are observably more resilient and better equipped to respond collectively as complex challenges arise.

At its core, then, community-driven change can be defined in terms of shared power between decision makers and community members, multiple perspectives on issues, strong participation from diverse people, a focus on the common good, and decision-making processes that are equitable, authentic, and transparent.


Top Down/Externally Driven

(doing for)

Community Driven

(doing from within)

Who Does the Work Organizations and Agencies Neighborhoods, Communities, and Regions

(residents, organizations, governments, etc.)

Nature of the Process Decide and Announce Agenda Setting, Problem-Solving, and Consensus Building
Who Organizes and Energizes the Process People with Authority and Influence Many People Exercising Leadership
Who informs the work Content Experts Local knowledge and experience informed by Content and Context Experts
Key Leadership Tasks Marshal Expertise and Influence Convene, Catalyze, and Facilitate


For many actors interested in the civic arena, community-driven change has become the preferred approach to transforming systems such as health care, education, and economic development. Over the past year, a panel of experts from the U.S. and Canada, with conceptual and experiential expertise related to civic capacity, worked together to consolidate their knowledge and experience and create a broadly accepted definition of what community-driven change means and what it looks like in practice.

This work on community-driven change generated information about characteristics, qualities, and concerns of communities capable of fostering constructive responses to disruptions and challenges. For example, these communities intentionally confront historic inequities and injustice. They couple an inclusive and engaging civic culture with institutions committed to community engagement. They keep a steady eye on the common good. Many people exercise leadership, some with positions of authority, many without. The leadership focus is on purposeful collaboration and mutual learning to make progress on issues of shared concern.

This understanding of community-driven change led to the development of a Civic Capacity Index (CCI), a measure of a community’s ability to make progress on complex, adaptive civic challenges (an initial version will be available in May 2020 for use in pilot applications).

The CCI helps inform, shape, and evaluate intervention strategies from governments, foundations, and other civic actors. As a diagnostic tool, the CCI, can help policy makers understand the capacity of a community or region to absorb and manage resources directed towards recovery from the impacts of a disruption like the coronavirus. As a framework for community-driven change, the index can be used to design interventions that respond better to presenting challenges while enhancing the civic capacity – the resilience – of the community or region. Responses can be tailored to the civic capacity of a particular place. If, for instance, civic capacity is high, interventions may require less direction. If civic capacity is low, interventions may need to provide more guidance, technical assistance and expertise. Communities can use the CCI as a place to start to assess and build their capacity for community-driven change. The index can track changes in civic capacity over time tying them to current actions. With the help of the community-driven change framework, civic actors can take advantage of existing civic capacity, understand where it is lacking, and build resilience for the future.

The Opportunity

Just as flattening the curve of the coronavirus in its initial stages takes leadership and concerted action, so too does creating a more resilient society. The coronavirus offers an opportunity to both mitigate the symptoms of this pandemic and to generate the ideas and political will to build a more just and equitable society. Realizing these aspirations takes civic capacity. Fulfilling them restores confidence in our collective capacity to respond to disruptions and challenges yet to come.

About the author

David has spent more than 40 years engaging with the concept of civil society and in the work of civic leadership and collaboration. His career has taken him from the National Outdoor Leadership School and Outward Bound to the American Leadership Forum, the National Civic League and the Kansas Leadership Center. He’s worked with hundreds of communities and organizations across this country as well as internationally and has conducted leadership development programs for thousands of people seeking to exercise civic leadership more effectively. He is Principal of Skillful Means. He’s the co-author with Ed O’Malley of For the Common Good: Redefining Civic Leadership (KLC Press, 2013). He’s also the co-author, with Carl Larson, of Collaborative Leadership: How Citizens and Civic Leaders can Make a Difference (Jossey-Bass, 1994) and author of The Collaborative Leadership Fieldbook (Jossey-Bass, 2002). David received his B.A. degree (1966) from Oklahoma State University in economics and history, an M.S. degree (1970) from Wichita State University in economics, and an M.P.A. degree (1982) from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Key References:

  • Briggs, Xavier de Souza (2008), Democracy as Problem Solving: Civic Capacity in Communities Across the Globe, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Pares, Marc, Sonia M. Ospina and Joan Subirats (2017), Social Innovation and Democratic Leadership: Communities and Social Change from Below, Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.


Advancing the Staley School mission through sabbatical leave

Among the 45 Kansas State University faculty members that will be granted a sabbatical leave during the 2020-2021 school year is Kerry Priest, associate professor in the Staley School of Leadership Studies.Kerry Priest

The purpose of a sabbatical leave is to provide faculty members with the opportunity for scholarly and professional enrichment. Sabbatical leaves allow faculty to pursue advanced study, conduct research studies, engage in scholarly and creative activities, or secure appropriate industrial or professional experience. Once faculty members return from their sabbaticals, they are expected to share the knowledge and experience they gained with their students, colleagues and the K-State community.

The objective of Priest’s one-semester sabbatical leave will be to focus attention and energy into the development of a book proposal on pedagogies of practice for collective leadership development.

In her own words, Priest said:

Leadership activity that makes progress on complex, adaptive challenges requires new learning, recognizing values and loyalties and constructing new ways of being. A primary assumption is that learning and development is not simply an individual exercise, but socially constructed through relationships and communities. While there is emerging literature in the areas of collective relational leadership which call for new forms of inquiry and practice, there are few tangible examples from which to train others.

As a scholar-educator, I am committed to bridging theory and practice. One way to do so is to develop concrete tools and techniques to improve research and teaching practices highlighting the interdependent connections between the self and the groups in making leadership happen.

The Staley School is proud of the recognition our faculty and staff receive for their continued efforts to enrich and improve the diverse and changing world around us through their research.

“This is well-deserved institutional recognition of Kerry’s current and future scholarly contributions and is an important career milestone,” said Mary Hale Tolar, director of the Staley School. “While we will miss her presence in the building next spring semester, she will be advancing scholarship important to the field and critical to our work here.”

Coffman Institute to provide leadership development for K-State professionals

Kansas State University will present the 2020 James R. Coffman Leadership Institute: Empowered Individuals, Enhanced Institutions. This two-and-a-half-day institute will take place Aug. 12-14 and offer faculty and unclassified staff a unique opportunity to refresh and enhance their leadership skills and knowledge. The Coffman Institute serves as a launching point for continuous leadership development, professional networking and empowerment of K-State professionals.

Purpose of the institute

The three primary objectives of this institute are:

  1. Provide opportunity for participants to refresh and develop their leadership skills in a safe yet challenging learning environment.
  2. Provide an opportunity for networking and interdisciplinary cooperation for faculty and staff.
  3. Infuse K-State with more empowered faculty and staff leaders.

Building relationships

An essential key for leadership success in any organization is the ability to build good relationships with members of the organization. Institute participants will have the opportunity to explore and initiate collaborative projects and discuss leadership issues. They also will have the chance to strengthen current relationships and to build new ones with other professionals at K-State.

Recognizing your leadership style

The James R. Coffman Leadership Institute is based on the philosophy that every individual can be a successful leader. This success depends on learning leadership skills as well as recognition of one’s leadership style. Further refining of one’s leadership style, understanding it’s associated strengths and challenges as well as its impact on decision-making, conflict resolution, and problem-solving preferences will be a major focus of the institute.

Institute format

The James R. Coffman Leadership Institute is a two-and-a-half-day experience with evening sessions. Learning activities are arranged to maximize participant learning and engage all learning styles. Topics may include inclusive leadership, conflict resolution, change management, leadership style assessment, shared leadership and team building. Formats: workshops, panel discussions, small and large group activities, small group discussions, multimedia presentations, case studies and self-assessments.

What to expect

Participants will have the opportunity to engage in a focused and in-depth adult learning experience aimed at leadership development. They will be offered knowledge and skill-based learning modules to engage them cognitively as well as behaviorally. Attendees also will have the opportunity to interact with other professionals who want to make a difference at K-State. Conference activities will take place at K-State’s Manhattan campus and in the local Manhattan community. As a feature of the retreat, participants will get to experience and interact with different parts of the campus and community.

More than 90 percent of past participants reported that workshops were extremely effective to effective.

“My biggest takeaway from the institute was not learning new leadership concepts or skills but rather an increased awareness about leading on purpose and with purpose.”

“The institute has equipped me with knowledge about my strengths, which will be helpful in collaborating with others on research projects and project proposal, and leading my research them. My goal is harnessing my strengths to improve my research program.”

“My expectations were pretty high, and you managed to surpass them.”

“Both the community building and leadership goals were definitely met.”

“Very effective … well organized, meaningful sessions and activities.”

How to apply

This year the Coffman Leadership Institute will accept nominations in a new format. Interested individuals may self-nominate or a nomination can be submitted by a dean, director, or department head. In the case of a self-nomination, the nominee’s dean, director or department head will be asked to confirm support of the nominee. All nominations can be completed via the 2020 James R. Coffman Leadership Institution nomination form.

The nomination deadline is Friday, March 13.

Before submitting a nomination, all applicants should be available to attend the institute in its entirety and be in good standing with his/her department. Please do not self-nominate or nominate individuals who have previously attended a James R. Coffman Leadership Institute.

For additional information, contact Trisha Gott in the Staley School of Leadership Studies at tcgott@k-state.edu or Shanna Legleiter with Human Capital Services at legleiters@k-state.edu.

Apply for the Leadership Communication doctoral program

Applications for Kansas State University’s Leadership Communication Ph.D. are now being accepted. Domestic applications are due Jan. 15, and international applications are due Jan. 1. Apply online today.

Do you want to lead change, advance communication and engage communities?

This doctoral program is a research degree grounded in community-engaged scholarship. Students will explore the intersection of theories and methods of leadership, communication, and other areas of inquiry related to collaborative change. Through the study and practice of leading change, students will produce original research that contributes to making progress on the most difficult challenges of our times.

Strong candidates for this doctoral program are committed to:

  • Engaging with others to leverage diverse perspectives
  • Developing capacities to:
    • Conduct original research
    • Convene stakeholders
    • Facilitate change processes
  • Enhancing careers with foundations, NGOs, corporations, educational institutions, and governmental agencies

Our students bring a variety of academic backgrounds, professional experience, and civic interests to this program. Learn more about the students.

Our faculty have the research expertise and professional experience to customize your learning in the program. The faculty are from the Communications and Agricultural Education Department, Communication Studies Department, AQ Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications, and the Staley School of Leadership Studies. Learn more about the faculty.

More details

For questions, contact Tim Steffensmeier, director of the Leadership Communication program and associate professor at the Staley School of Leadership Studies, at steffy@ksu.edu.

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