Foglio's Field Notes

Leif Utne's random rants, musings and meditations

What is Leadership?

with 4 comments

Chief Oren Lyons reflects on leadership

Chief Oren Lyons reflects on leadership

Being a leader is a lonely and difficult business, says Chief Oren Lyons, of the Onandaga Nation. The toughest part is often dealing with the people closest to you. If you can stick to what you know is true and face the inevitable attacks that come from your family and friends when the going gets tough, you will have passed one of the true tests of a leader.

It’s the second morning of the Tällberg New Leaders Program, and we’re huddled around the Chief’s feet as he regales us with his reflections on leadership, gesturing grandly out at the sweeping view from our perch on a rocky hilltop high above Lake Siljan.

He reminds us to think like the Iriquois, who always consider the effects that any decision they make will have on the next seven generations. And by seven generations, he says, they mean seven entire lifetimes — nearly 500 years. That’s thinking long-term! He urges us, too, to stand up and speak out for nature. Pointing to a large pine tree nearby, he reminds us that it took hundreds of years for that tree to grow, yet a chainsaw could take it down in the blink of an eye. It will take great leadership to save these trees.

I don’t wear the “leader” label comfortably. There’s something intimidating about being called a leader. What or who am I a leader of? I don’t run an organization. I don’t have employees. I don’t hold public office. I’m a salesguy for a small software startup. Sure, we’re building online communities for organizations and movements that represent hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people. But the buck doesn’t stop with me. I would almost rather the New Leaders Programme were called the New Leadership Programme.

Still, I accept that I am a leader in certain ways. I can speak powerfully about things I care about. And at least some people listen. People do turn to me for advice and opinions on a variety of issues. And I’m a good networker. I have a talent for connecting people to each other to facilitate collaborations that sometimes yield powerful results.

Plus, 20 people sponsored me financially to help facilitate my participation in the NLP. So at least they think I’m a leader, or that it was worth investing money in developing my leadership potential.

The introduction to the NLP reads: “Successful leadership stems from seeing the early trends, understanding the path forward and having the courage to act.”

I’m going to keep chewing on this question. I’d really appreciate your thoughts on the matter.

Who are your favorite leaders? Why? Do you have any favorite books or resources on leadership? Please share them in the comments below.

Written by leifutne

July 18, 2009 at 1:00 am

Posted in leadership, Me, sustainability, tech

Tagged with ,

4 Responses

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  1. Hey Leif,

    We met a few years back at the Hollyhock Invitational. Came across your post and figured I’d respond.

    I’ve been a student of “leadership” since 1974. Although we often tend to focus on the “leader,” i.e., the one with role authority, I’ve come to believe that leadership is actually a function of any healthy living system. It is the compliment of “management” and attends to the system’s need for innovation and, when necessary, evolution.

    Since leadership, and its compliment-management, are functions of a system it is the responsibility of all members to contribute to actions that further the health of the system, within its environment. When it comes to innovation/evolution, i.e., leadership, I think this means listening into what is called for, to hear the initial subtle disturbance into awareness that leads to collective action.

    This more often than not begins at the margins, the membrane of the system, which is most in touch with the larger environment. The work of those engaged in leadership activities is to raise awareness in such a way that the whole of the system is inspired and mobilized to identify and implement the necessary changes.

    I think a “leader” is one who engages in these behaviors in a way that becomes a beacon for others, someone they can turn to in times of challenge to remind them of needs of the system and the importance of their ongoing efforts. Seems like your work with the Utne Reader is an example of this.

    So I’d modify the quote to something more like leadership is the ability to sense the system’s need to change and the courage to behave in such a way that mobilizes and inspires others to successfully engage the challenge and adapt the system in life giving ways.

    A couple of books I’ve found useful are Heifetz & Linsky’s “Leadership on the Line” and Peter Block’s “Community.”

    Keep up the good work!

    Be Well,

    Dan Leahy

    July 19, 2009 at 12:49 pm

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