Friday, April 2, 2010

What's the Value in Following Rather Than Leading?

By John Esterle

How do we make following sexy? This question has stayed with me since Katherine Fulton, President of The Monitor Institute, posed it a few days ago at the Annual Meeting of Northern California Grantmakers. It probably stuck because I think it's an important question to address if more foundations are to move in the kind of collaborative, networked ways Fulton advocated.

If we're honest, when many of us (I include myself here) think of collaboration we tend to think in terms of getting others to support what we're doing: our idea, our initiative, our grantee. Our initial orientation isn't usually the other way around. Yet, as funders, if we're to operate cooperatively with the kind of "ecosystem" understanding and approach Fulton recommended we need to be far more open to following others' leads, more open to seeing how we fit within a system of giving and willing to follow (or fill gaps) if that's what the situation calls for.

Exploring how to successfully navigate the changing context for philanthropy, a context quite different from what has gone before, Fulton highlighted the importance of trust, humility, and deep listening. These qualities mapped across a range of themes Fulton raised, from moving beyond "either/or" to "both/and" frames, to learning to creatively balance tensions, to taking risks and learning from mistakes, to pushing beyond our comfort zones, to engaging with diversity of all kinds. And that map led me back to thinking about TWI, the work of our grantees, and the central role trust, humility, and deep listening play in dialogue.

So, as I continue to mull over how to make following sexy, other questions spring to mind. What's the relationship between leading and following? How does that relationship change depending on context? Depending on the ecosystem we see ourselves operating in? In a networked world, are traditional notions of leading and following becoming increasingly cumbersome? And finally, when we think of individual or organizational leaders how many model qualities of trust, humility, and deep listening?