Lookin’ for Leadership in all the wrong places

Harvard Business Review blogger, Ron Ashkenas, asks: Where Have All the Leaders Gone? He writes:

“According to a survey conducted by the Harvard Kennedy School last year, 68% of Americans believe that there is a “leadership crisis” in the country; and leaders in only four out of thirteen sectors inspire above average confidence (the military, the Supreme Court, non-profits, and medical institutions). Leaders of the news media, Congress, and Wall Street receive the lowest scores.”

Throughout the world we see political leaders embroiled in vile sex scandals and corporate leaders involved in corruption. We are weary of endless, divisive debates. We are just so tired of the resource-sucking, unproductive bickering. Do you feel this way? If so, I suggest you look away from the evening news, business magazine covers or the local daily which are in the business of reporting conflict. Instead, take a refreshing look at sports and community group leaders, church leaders, parent councils, Executive Directors of Not-for-Profits and youth. We have been misled to believe ‘real’ leaders are politicians and CEOs of large, publicly traded companies. While it’s true that these ‘Big L’ leaders wield considerable power, they are greatly outnumbered by the small ‘l’ leaders among us. Another truth is that the ‘us’ and ‘them’ labels are not very helpful.

When I think of leadership, I think of the founders of the Guelph Community Foundation. The initiative was completely volunteer-based and the goal was to build endowments to create a future income stream for community programs and organizations. Ten years later, the Foundation has over $8 million in capital. I think of the Executive Director of Women in Crisis who runs an award-winning, multi-million dollar organization that has immediate and critical impact in the community. She demonstrates vision and leadership everyday but you won’t see her on the cover of a magazine. We are surrounded with examples of vision, hard-work and collaboration. We are surrounded by leaders who, often without formal authority, title, or pay, use some of the most effective leadership techniques to empower those around them and to achieve results.

Last week-end I attended an extraordinary gathering of 160 Canadian student sustainability leaders, NGO partners, academics and systems experts from a number of Canadian co-operatives, businesses and municipalities. IMPACT! The Co-operators Youth Program for Sustainability Leadershipprovides Canadian university and college sustainability leaders with the inspiration, skills and networks to be effective catalysts for change.  It is an excellent example of corporate leadership providing funding, vision and expertise; academic leadership providing the latest research perspectives; and NGO leadership providing on-the-ground knowledge and opportunities.

Dr. David Suzuki with IMPACT! Leaders

Ten systems experts, ten academic experts, four panelists, three keynote speakers and ten workshop leaders all volunteered their time and shared their expertise at the cornerstone conference. They included local leaders like The Co-operators CEO, Kathy Bardswick; University of Guelph President, Dr. Alastair Summerlee who has started a school in an African refugee camp; Dr. Anne-Marie Zadjlik, founder of Bracelet of Hope Campaignand many others.

In addition to being inspired by Dr. David Suzuki, sector and academic experts, participants heard from their peers. For instance, Jonathan Glencross, 2009 IMPACT! alumnus and the 23-year old behind McGill’s $2.5M Sustainability Projects Fund – the largest university green fund in Canadian history. They worked with Keleigh Annau, IMPACT! alumnae and IMPACT! Fund grant recipient who, at 16, founded Lights Out Canada which provides sustainability curriculum to over 175,000 students nationally. And, while the participants, representing 70 Canadian universities and colleges, are already leading social justice initiatives, environmental awareness projects, architectural readaptation programs, etc. they now have a bit more knowledge, access to seed funding and to each other to help their dreams take flight. IMPACT! is one of many examples of youth leadership in Canada but it illustrates that when we take politics and ambition out of the equation, that when we look more locally at programs and policies that shape our daily lives, leadership is all around us. And it is alive and well.

As Margaret Wheatley suggest, in quantum physics elementary matter can show up as waves or as particles and the movement or location can be measured but never at the same time. If you are trying to measure one, then that is what you will observe. So?

Let’s stop using a microscope to dissect leadership strictly on the Fortune 500, S&P 500 and the TSX and start using a telescope to view the entire system of interactions. I suspect we will find a more encouraging picture of leadership.

Published by Dominique O'Rourke

Public Affairs professional, City Councillor, MA Leadership graduate, problem solver and lifelong learner.

2 thoughts on “Lookin’ for Leadership in all the wrong places

  1. Great blog post and reminder, Dominique. I think it is truly amazing to see the entrepreneurial spirit shine through and especially in the younger generation. I applaud leadership that is present especially when it appears that no one is watching.

    Keep writing and sharing!


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