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What Is Leadership?

What Is Leadership?

From the sermon on September 30, 2007; Minnesota Valley UU Fellowship, Bloomington, MN

Leadership does not reside necessarily in bosses, officials, experts or authority figures.  Leadership can reside in anyone.  It can take many forms.  Leadership is not about giving easy answers as much as it is about asking the right questions.  This is the message of Ronald Heifitz, a professor at Harvard University.  He’s the author of Leadership without Easy Answers.


Leadership is not the same thing as having technical expertise.  A technical expert fixes problems that have clear solutions.  This is important in any enterprise. 


But leadership is different.  A leader helps the members of an organization or a community face up to an adaptive challenge, helps them confront it and walk through it. 


By adaptive challenge, Ronald Heifitz means a dilemma with no easy answers.  It’s a crisis or problem which  requires members of the group to make hard choices, and to learn new ways of working together.  Responsible leaders avoid making extreme, either/or statements and ultimatums.  Responsible leaders try to keep a space open for new possibilities and new options.  A leader asks questions, and listens, and speaks, and listens more.  A leader helps us frame the problem and reflect on it.  A leader takes responsibility, while also sharing it with others. . . .


Leadership is as much about asking hard questions as it is about coming up with answers.  It’s not about quick fixes.  Leadership is about presence.  It’s about showing up.  Showing up is something almost everybody can do. 


Can you listen to the point of view of someone with whom you disagree?  Then you can practice leadership.  If anxiety rises as your community faces a dilemma, but you stick around, you are practicing leadership–you are adding a sense of order and hope for the future. 


If you find yourself a lightening rod for the anxiety of another person or a group, and instead of lashing out or walking out, you keep the attention on the important work at hand, you show leadership. 


If, in the midst of crisis and chaos, you can invite others to take some time with you in reflection, you will practice leadership.


Occasionally I hear someone say, “I’m not a leader; I’m just a facilitator, or a coordinator.” I disagree!  Facilitating the participation and work of others is a form of influence on others, and it is leadership.   


When you draw a community’s attention to an issue of importance, you exercise leadership.  When you ask a question to help others to frame their priorities, you are leading.  Even when you feel anxiety, if you can stay engaged as your group is dealing with the challenges, you are leading in a quiet but powerful way.


It is leadership to help a group notice its blind spots and consider new perspectives, even if by asking timid questions. When you speak up, even if your voice trembles or your knees knock, you exercise leadership. 


Edward Everrett Hale said, “I cannot do everything.  But still I can do something.  And because I cannot do everything I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.”


Can you can help another person to speak up?  Can you can make space in a group for a differing voice to be heard?  If so, that’s leadership. 


If you can invite someone to a meeting, ask them to pitch in and help, or show them where the signup sheets are, you can practice leadership. 


You practice leadership if you can raise questions and then stay around to hear the responses.  None of us can do all these things all the time or in every situation.  I know I cannot.  But sometimes we can, and it can make a difference.


Leadership belongs to those who show up, listen, speak up and stick around. 


Let us give thanks to the leadership that rests in our own hands, our own minds, our own hearts.  Let us give thanks for those who help us to bring it forth.


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