Thursday, October 29, 2009

Beyond the Rockstar Paradigm

By Pia Infante

During a plenary at TWI grantee Interfaith Youth Core’s conference Interfaith Youth Work: “Leadership for a Religiously Diverse World”, I was struck by Representative Keith Ellison’s, 5 th Congressional District of Minnesota, vehement statement: “let’s differentiate between leaders and leadership.”  Clearly positional leaders can demonstrate very little leadership while those of us without positional authority can offer leadership at any moment.  Think about the volunteer who, in June of 1963, acted to print 50,000 instead of 5,000 fliers for the march (an immense effort in pre-Kinko’s times) that eventually helped bring over a million people to hear MLK speak in the mall.  Or the first Iranian protester to “tweet” about the government crackdown on demonstrations at Tehran University this past June.

This plenary on “Interfaith Leadership, Social Entrepreneurship, and Movement Building” left me asking:  What is the construct of leadership embedded in public consciousness and dialogue?  In our social movements?  In philanthropy?

It occurs to me that I can hardly begin to conceptualize leadership without calling to mind individual, inspirational people.  Even my example above of the civil rights volunteer implicitly holds MLK at its center.  Yet, this plenary got me mulling over an understanding of leadership in the form of “the invisible hands that move millions” vs. “the Rockstar.”

Every sector and community has its beloved Rockstars.   I’ll bet you can name 3 of your favorites now as you read this.  They are highly profiled, often tokenized, win awards like the MacArthur or the Gardener and are invited into prized cohorts like the Prime Movers or the Ashoka Fellows. 

An evolving definition of leadership might shift the attention into the "invisible" multitudes.  Though, given the proliferation social medias, is invisibility even an option?  Some might point out that open sourced leadership is already proliferating via social medias at rapid rates and scales, in ways that have yet to be truly absorbed by most of us.  So, my evolving definition here isn’t exactly a demand to make of everyone a Rockstar or to de-Rock our stars.

What I’m getting to is a both/and understanding.  It’s not about scrapping the model (and existing infrastructures) of the Rockstar paradigm over a completely faceless, open source model.  

Those "hubs" or "outliers" (i.e. Malcolm Gladwell) we dub Rockstars have a crucial role in social movements and are in symbiotic relationship with the 10,000 people following them on Twitter as well.  The edgiest, most strategic people in positional leadership that I know stay in the closest contact possible with the folks that are on the ground, moving their shared vision forward.   So the both/and is an awareness, attention, and resourcing not just the Rockstars but also the 10’s of thousands who are leading from their cell phones, doing what needs done in their homes, neighborhoods, and communities without waving a flag about it, launching untold projects, positively influencing their environments, or, in a million other ways, demonstrating leadership in their own contexts.  And connecting beyond those contexts in order to inspire and be inspired.

I’ll be honest.  This is incredibly refreshing to me.  Having been engaged on many fronts with the “issue” of a supposed “leadership crisis” for several years, conversations about leadership development that stick to a model of finding that singular bright star and resourcing her/him strike me as fantastical as the NBA draft.  The “one in a million” construct feels out of date to me.  If we understand leadership not as spread among on a chosen few, but shared amongst all of us, what then can we imagine? 

How do we (those in philanthropy, those designing civic engagement, those guiding non-profits organizations, those influencing social movements) imagine resourcing that lateral movement of many beyond supporting (funding, endorsing) a leader who is vertically at the top?  What does supporting leadership beyond the Rockstar paradigm look like?

I’d love to hear from you.  Especially if you are one of the many Rockstars that may be reading this.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Indepedent Sector's Future Lab: They Built It and They're Not Coming

By John Esterle

I recently got another email from Independent Sector trying to solicit input and ideas for Future Lab: An Ongoing Challenge for the Nonprofit Community to Chart a Vibrant 2020. The Lab is a well-intentioned effort to promote online dialogue and collaborative thinking that IS has clearly devoted considerable time, energy, and money to. The Lab is one part of IS' Envisioning Our Future initiative that was kicked off in July with their Strategy Lab convening in Colorado.

Unfortunately, hardly anyone -- including me -- is taking up their invitation to participate online.

My non-participation brings to mind my own recent post about the challenge of people not leaving comments on blogs. So why haven't I participated? Here's some of what comes up for me:
  • Shyness about participating in such a high profile platform.
  • The lack of comments discourages me from making one of my own.
  • I am not a member of IS nor do I have any personal history with the organization that would prompt me to support them on a relationship level.
  • Doubts about the whole Envisioning Our Future effort.
All in all visiting the site has that sad quality of going to a party that no one has showed up for even though you've arrived fashionably late. I'm struck by how quickly a judgment can seemingly be rendered that makes such an elaborate online platform feel lifeless. And once that perception is there I think it's hard to reverse.

Perhaps Independent Sector's upcoming conference will spark people's participation. My understanding is that the online exchange of ideas is supposed to be the fuel for a series of discussions at the conference (which I'll be attending for the first time). I would imagine there's some rethinking about that design going on at the moment, but it seems that the lack of participation in Future Lab provides a real opportunity for learning and dialogue about what makes for successful on-line and in-person engagements geared to promoting "a national conversation" that enables people to "work across fields" and be part of an "iterative process for problem solving. "

One final thought. Observing the level of participation so far in America's Giving Challenge, recently launched by The Case Foundation, Causes on Facebook, and Parade Magazine, I wonder about the invitational quality of competition and tangible rewards. Would Future Lab be having a different result if it had been set up before the Strategy Lab? For instance, would there have been more buzz if the authors of the highest rated ideas would have been included in the invitation list to the Colorado summit? It was held at the Broadmoor Hotel after all.

Anyway, hindsight is easy but The Envisioning Our Future effort brings up a lot of questions about processes of invitation and engagement, on-line and in-person dialogue, co-creation and collaborative problem solving that are ripe for continued exploration and experimentation. With that in mind, I'm curious to see what the IS conference will be like and will no doubt have more thoughts to share about this effort afterward.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Maya Enista: Utne Visionary

By John Esterle

The Utne Reader has published their annual list of "50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World" and Maya Enista, CEO of TWI grantee,, is among them. Congratulations, Maya!

As I went down the list of the other 49 visionaries without recognizing a single one, I couldn't help but think of the countless people working in so many different places and in so many different ways to make the world a better place. Given the constant drumbeat of bad news we get it's important to remember, and be grateful for, just how many forces for good there are in the world. Thanks to Utne for highlighting that.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

21st Century Skills

By John Esterle

Mark Wilding, Executive Director of The PassageWorks Institute (a TWI grantee) has written an insightful post on "21st Century Education from the Inside Out" that makes the case for moving beyond polarized debates within education (e.g. skills vs. content, discipline vs. an open heart; ends vs. means) if all of our kids are going to be able to participate in schools that "are safe and intellectually challenging environments -- so that they have the cognitive, physical, emotional, and social skills to be successful and ethical citizens in the 21st century."

Mark touches on a couple of themes present in my recent posts (how emotion affects learning and thinking; the importance of working with people who think differently than you) while raising others that I'll no doubt write about in the future: the need to practice what we preach when it comes to how we think and talk and act together; the importance of expanding our definition of what it means to be literate; and the need for new kinds of coalitions and collaborations if we are to foster new educational and civic cultures.

Also, when he writes, "This brings up another cosmic education question. Are so-called learning and life skills 'ends' in themselves or are they means to an academic end?" I couldn't help but think how that echoes the tensions that surface around the question of 'impact' in so much process and relationship-based work (talk vs. action, relationships vs. results). These questions and tensions are not just academic of course; they carry much weight in terms of what types of work and approaches receive funding and resources.

Thinking of those things put me in mind of Eamonn Kelly's closing comments about assessment, measurement, and change in the 21st century when I interviewed him a while ago:

"There's an increasing disconnect between the tangible assets that we can actually account for, literally, and the intangible assets that are about relationships and are fundamental. These questions are starting to become more visible and meaningful and will lead, I believe, to really important changes. Will we end this century with our same measurement systems for value, growth, and development? I truly hope not and I don't believe we will."

Needless to say, I share his sentiments.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Harvard Decision Making Lab

By John Esterle

I had a fun "aha" moment when I was noodling around and discovered The Harvard Decision Making Lab, which was founded less than a year ago. They're studying all kinds of interesting stuff around the science of decisions, with a particular interest in the role of emotions in decision making. And the favorite emotion to study for the Lab's director, Jennifer Lerner, is anger. For more about her interest in this topic and her ideas about the Lab I recommend reading this introductory profile. In the meantime, here are some statements from her that popped out at me:

"We have approximately 3,000 executive education students come through each year -- over and above the enrolled students. The executive ed students are often leaders of governments around the world. And many of our enrolled students will go on to lead governments or multinational corporations. In one capacity or another, they will have international influence. I get to reach people who are in a position to structure the decision environments of their governments. I cannot think of another place in the world where I could do that."

And this,

"Anger is a more positive emotion in the States than it is in cultures that are more interdependent and collectivistic. In America, anger pervades political culture and many styles of organizational leadership. Indeed, research shows that the effects of being in power resemble the effects of being angry. So if any emotion needs to be contextually defanged, it's anger."

She goes on to note what her research shows is characteristic of angry deciders: "Not feeling you need more information. Underperceiving risks. Being prone to take risks. Attributing causality to individuals rather than situations. Simplistic thought." Reading these charactersistics certainly supports her observation that anger pervades our culture!

So, what works with angry decision makers?

According to Lerner, you shift their environment; you create situations where they are more accountable to others for what they say and think. Her research supports the finding that "being accountable created the conditions by which they could consciously monitor their thinking and perceive the issues with more nuance and complexity....In other words, context matters. The environment in which a decision is made turns out to be more important than the decider."

The themes the Harvard Lab is exploring around leadership and designing optimal decision making environments immediately brought to mind TWI grantee Mark Gerzon's nascent Global Leadership Lab project at Mediators Foundation, which aspires to "design an environment that raises the level of awareness of leaders in order to optimize their decision-making abilitities and to apply that environment to critical global issues." Hmmm. Perhaps they should talk.

In the meantime, if you were designing an optimal decision making environment to address complex issues or problems what would it look like?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Social Media Storytelling: Seeing and Thinking Differently

By John Esterle

Continuing the thread about the power of stories, check out Kari Dunn Saratovsky's brief interview with Mark Horvath on the Social Citizens blog at The Case Foundation. It offers a brief, compelling, primer of how social media can be a powerful storytelling tool to make the invisible visible (in this case homelessness).

Mark's line about the importance of organizations losing their "lone ranger" mentality is instructive. What especially pops out for me are his comments about the value of helping people that think differently in terms of expanding your own thinking and increasing your impact in relation to the causes you're standing up for. With that, he's certainly preaching to the choir here at TWI. As always, though, we recognize doing so is far easier said than done.

Speaking of media and thinking and choirs, of course, puts me in mind of TWI grantee, Active Voice, and how they use film, television, and multimedia to spark cross-perspective dialogue and inform policy making. Telling compelling, character-driven stories is central to Active Voice's approach and I can think of no better place to go for smart thinking about how to use media to help us to see and think differently about a range of important issues.

So, here's a question (or three): Has reaching beyond the choir changed your thinking? If so, how? And how did this change in thinking manifest in your work?