Everyone Leads

By Paul Schmitz

Everyone leads. When I began using this phrase in presentations about Public Allies and chose it as the title of my book, it provoked many questions and debates from people outside the organization. Some asked if we really meant everyone. ‘‘Can everyone really lead?’’ they asked. ‘‘Or are you just talking about a certain group of people? Don’t you agree that people have different levels of skills, and that some people just aren’t meant to be in charge? Aren’t there people who don’t want to be in charge?’’

Others questioned whether anything can get done if everyone feels that he or she is in charge: ‘‘Don’t you have a problem with too many people feeling entitled? Do you mean that everyone has a say about everything? How is it possible to get clear direction or consensus if everyone believes that he or she is a leader? Don’t you need better followers, too?’’

I have found a simple and powerful way to answer these critics by reframing the idea of leadership, moving from an emphasis on the noun leader to an emphasis on the verb to lead. At Public Allies, we talk about leadership in terms of an action one takes, not in terms of a position one holds. Leadership is about taking responsibility – both personal and social – for working with others on shared goals. Everyone has some circle of influence where it is possible to take responsibility for leading.

It is also important how one leads, and leadership includes the values one uses to bring people together around shared goals. In other words, the means are as important as the ends. Leadership is not about a position that one is entitled to have; it is about a process in which one takes responsibility to engage. Depending on the goal, group, or task, we may sometimes be leading and sometimes be following.

This does not mean that everyone can lead any effort, organization, or institution, or that one who is a good leader in one context is a good leader in other contexts. It does mean, however, that a great leader can come from anywhere, and that unless more people believe in themselves, take responsibility, and work with others to make a difference, we all lose out from the lost potential.

We have developed the leadership qualities of nearly 5,000 diverse young adults, from ex-felons and teen parents to graduates of top colleges. There is an incredible amount of idealism, energy, passion, and intelligence in our communities that is overlooked and unharnessed. We need more of these talented community members to step up and lead.

There is an incredible amount of idealism, energy, passion, and intelligence in our communities that is overlooked and unharnessed.

No one who saw Ben Franklin arrive in Philadelphia with nothing more than a loaf of bread to his name would have imagined who this poor printer’s apprentice would become. E. D. Nixon and other residents of Montgomery, Alabama, also did not know what to expect of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the twenty-six-year old preacher they chose to be the public leader of their bus boycott.

Leadership emerging from humble beginnings is a common narrative throughout the United States’ history, whether in social movements, politics, or business. But stories of social change that focus only on the role of heroic leaders are incomplete. Social change has always been the result of ordinary people doing extraordinary things – the courageous acts of many, not just the heroic acts of a few.

Most leadership books today are about how leaders build effective organizations. My book is about how to build effective communities. There’s a good reason for this focus: We see many well-run organizations that demonstrate measurable results in addressing educational, health, or economic needs, but we don’t see change in the community’s overall results. For example, we see a large after-school program claim that it has helped thousands of young people improve their academic performance, but citywide test scores and graduation rates don’t rise. We believe that this is so because such isolated efforts fail to inclusively engage the assets of diverse community members and groups. They fail to enlist collaboration across the many systems that influence the desired outcomes.

To solve persistent community challenges, it is not enough to build more effective organizations. We need to build more effective communities.

The evidence is clear – to solve persistent community challenges, it is not enough to build more effective organizations. We need to build more effective communities, and our five core values – recognizing and mobilizing community assets, connecting across cultures, facilitating collaborative action, continuously learning and improving, and being accountable to those one works with and those one serves – help leaders do just that.


A History Of Eeveryone Leading

The history of social change in America shows that ordinary people can do extraordinary things, and that lasting social change most often comes from the bottom up. The spirit of citizen leadership and association probably had its greatest modern manifestation in the civil rights movement.

On December 1, 1955, when Rosa Parks refused an order to give up her seat on the bus to make room for a white passenger, she was more than just a tired seamstress, as legend and even her New York Times obituary have mischaracterized her. She was a volunteer leader with the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and had been trained in civil disobedience at the Highlander School in Tennessee by the great organizer Ella Baker. Parks’ boss at the NAACP, E. D. Nixon, was also a member of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) and had been mentored by a fellow BSCP member, the civil rights pioneer A. Philip Randolph.

When Rosa Parks was arrested, Nixon realized that the arrest represented an opportunity to mobilize the black community in Montgomery. He worked with the Women’s Political Council, led by Jo Ann Robinson, who had the idea for the boycott, and with Parks’ permission he stayed up all night copying thirty-five thousand handbills to promote the boycott. As the boycott grew from a one-day action to a movement, Nixon and others chose Dr. King to lead the effort because of his eloquence and his youth (King was then only twenty-six years old), believing that if the effort failed, King could simply pack up and leave town.

By this time, Nixon had the help not just of Ella Baker but also of two other master organizers, Bayard Rustin and Stanley Levinson, who created a group called In Trust to support the Montgomery effort and link it to other Southern organizing efforts, and Baker took Parks on a fundraising tour of the Northeast. These organizers, recognizing Dr. King’s immense talents, built the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) to create a base for his leadership.

The courage of Parks, the strategy of Nixon, the passion of Robinson, and the eloquence of King were all critical, but just as critical were daily acts of courage and sacrifice by thousands of citizens who spread the word and led by example and influence. In fact, when some of the movement leaders considered ending the boycott, it was the black citizens of Montgomery who led their leaders, refusing to compromise until they won. Rosa Parks’ heroic act was an essential spark, but that spark led to change because of the leadership of citizens at many levels.

Dr. Charles McKinney, a former Public Allies North Carolina colleague who is now a civil rights historian at Rhodes College, sums it up this way:

“When we elevate leaders of particular movements to the mythic status of great man or woman, we do a disservice to everyone. By placing people on a historical pedestal, we forget that they grew, learned, made mistakes, and struggled throughout the tenure of their leadership, and we forget that these leaders were mentored, collaborated with other leaders, and had to get their followers to believe in their own capacity to step up and lead. Hero worship relegates the work, thought, and effort of ‘‘ordinary people’’ to something akin to pleasant background music. Local agents for change and progress lose their voice and are mercilessly converted into mindless, thoughtless followers of the great man or woman who ‘‘leads’’ them. In this frequently zero-sum game, all parties are diminished. In order for us to understand and build on this history, we must honor the true leadership paradigm, where leaders at all levels – those few who get recognized and the countless others who contribute silently – are necessary for change.”


Be, Know, Do

Funders and partners have often asked Public Allies why we focus more on leadership values than on leadership skills. In Be Know Do: Leadership the Army Way, Frances Hesselbein and General Eric Shinseki (USA Ret.) present the army’s unique approach to building leadership.

Anyone who influences others, motivating them to action or influencing their thinking or decisions, is a leader, and so everyone in the army is at some point both a leader and a follower. The army can’t import leadership from outside, and so it must grow its own.

The reality of the army is that it depends on an ability of leaders at all levels to inspire and lead, often under the most harrowing conditions and unimaginable levels of stress, according to Hesselbein and Shinseki. Everyone must lead. Anyone who influences others, motivating them to action or influencing their thinking or decisions, is a leader, and so everyone in the army is at some point both a leader and a follower. The army can’t import leadership from outside, and so it must grow its own.

The authors argue that leadership values must come before skills and action: ‘‘Many people naively think that leadership is a matter of a set of skills that the leader uses on other people: how to influence others, how to inspire others, how to rally others to a cause.’’ They criticize most leadership development in the corporate sector as the inculcation of management skills rather than leadership practices, and they argue that the corporate sector wrongly sees attention to the personal development of the leader as ‘‘soft.’’

No knowledge or skills will make up for a lack of character, and so ‘‘be, know, do’’ is the correct sequence in the process of developing leadership.

Leadership really starts with a focus on oneself and on building the character that will lead people to want to follow. Leaders of the future will not focus on ‘‘how to do it’’ but on ‘‘how to be.’’ No knowledge or skills will make up for a lack of character, and so ‘‘be, know, do’’ is the correct sequence in the process of developing leadership. Hesselbein and Shinseki describe these three components as follows:

• Be: the character of a leader. As a leader, you must first make sure your own house is in order, and you must cultivate the key values that will inspire and persuade people to follow you. The authors quote a set of values from Kouzes and Posner’s The Leadership Challenge – being honest, competent, forward-looking, and inspiring.
Know: the competence of a leader. The authors outline four sets of skills: interpersonal (coaching, teaching, motivating, team building), conceptual (thinking creatively; reasoning analytically, critically, and ethically), technical (job-related abilities), and tactical (the combination of skills appropriate to a role, responsibility, or mission).
Do: character and competence underlie everything a leader does. Leaders act, they do – they bring together everything they are, everything they believe, and everything they know how to do, and they provide purpose, direction, and motivation to others.


Five Value Of Leadership

1. Recongnizing Assets

The ABCD approach, first presented by John ‘‘Jody’’ Kretzmann and John McKnight in their groundbreaking book Building Communities from the Inside Out, has influenced hundreds of thousands of community builders around the world. At the heart of their approach is the answer to a proverbial question: Is the glass half empty or half full? Traditionally, the pessimist answers that it is half empty and the optimist answers that it is half full, but the asset-based organizer simply answers, ‘‘Yes.’’

The ABCD approach sees our communities, our families, our friends, our neighbors, and ourselves as both half full and half empty. Each of us has assets – the gifts, talents, and skills that make us good workers, neighbors, friends, and family members. We also all have deficits – things we don’t do so well, things that get in the way of our relationships, and mistakes we have made.

In fact, sometimes our shortcomings are related to our strengths. For example, I am an organizer and strategist but not a great detail or process person, and so my ability to see the big picture and go after big goals can lead me to see short-term steps as unimportant or distracting.

Unfortunately, some of us are recognized primarily for our fullness, and others among us are recognized and labeled only for our emptiness. That difference is the most pernicious barrier to building strong relationships and communities. It is the half full part – the assets – where the ingredients for building strong relationships and communities reside.


2. Diversity

This approach is the essence of diversity and inclusion work. It is about actions and results, not beliefs and intentions. Too often, diversity and inclusion are words in values statements or principles in strategic plans. Too rarely, we see diversity and inclusion as results. We need results. Our nation is becoming increasingly diverse, yet research shows that residents of diverse communities don’t know how to work well together on public issues, and that the nonprofit organizations that serve our communities also struggle to engage and develop diverse leaders. Recent events in our political culture demonstrate that we still have a way to go to dismantle various forms of oppression. We need leaders who can create opportunities for diverse citizens to realize their potential and work together.

Public Allies employs three key strategies to build such diverse and inclusive leaders. The first is to select people with very diverse backgrounds and talents. The second is to help emerging leaders confront issues of power, privilege, and oppression within themselves, their communities, and our larger society. The third is to use that awareness to advocate for and build inclusive communities. Doing this work can be hard, but it is also quite rewarding. Inclusive leadership, as your knowledge and relationships expand, can be joyous and inspiring and can lead to better results in your work


3. Collaborative

Leadership is inherently a collaborative process. Leaders inspire, persuade, and engage others to work with them on common goals. To work with others effectively, we must first understand ourselves – our strengths, our limitations, our learning styles, our work styles, our needs, our personal missions, and our grounding motivations and values. Such self-knowledge helps us to have confidence about our purpose and what we can best contribute to our purpose. It also gives us humility when we realize we can’t do it all, and that we need others in order to achieve our goals.

Team building and being a team player are essential leadership skills, but the process doesn’t happen automatically. Team-building retreats, workshops, and training are useful tools to help people learn to work effectively with others. Experiential opportunities, such as team service projects, also help strengthen collaborative muscles.


4. Continuous Learning

Leadership is not an end; it is a process. Leaders need to be confident in what they know and humble about what they don’t. They need to ask for help and feedback. As John McKnight once told me, ‘‘It is more important to have the right questions than the right answers.’’ I often see leaders who are fearful of failure and fail to admit mistakes and ask for help. They believe leadership is about showing they can do it all and handle it all. I know because I was one of them.


5. Accountability

Integrity is what holds the picture together. Integrity means integrating our mission, our values, our ethics, our relationships, and our actions. It is how we take responsibility for our actions, our words, our commitments, and our need to learn. Integrity is about holding ourselves accountable to the people we work with and to those we serve. And it is about honoring all those who’ve inspired, influenced, taught, and mentored us along the way. We look at integrity through the lenses of being true to ourselves, holding ourselves accountable to others, holding ourselves accountable to those we serve, and honoring those who have contributed to our life journeys and our leadership journeys.

We need many more leaders in all parts of our communities to step up and address injustice, working together across social, professional, and institutional boundaries.

The practices described here will help you better engage diverse people and groups to work effectively together because that is really the essence of what leaders do. We face an abundance of challenges – poverty, inadequate or failing schools and social services, limited access to healthy environments and lifestyles, and limited access to health care, to name just a few – that continue to cause suffering for too many of our fellow citizens. No one leader or group can solve these problems. We need many more leaders in all parts of our communities to step up and address injustice, working together across social, professional, and institutional boundaries. We really are the ones we have been waiting for. Everyone leads!

Excerpt from Everyone Leads: Building Leadership from the Community Up, by Paul Schmitz, Jossey Bass 2011.

About the Author

Paul Schmitz is the CEO of Public Allies, which advances leadership to strengthen communities, nonprofits, and civic participation across the country. He is recognized as one of America’s most influential nonprofit leaders; writes and speaks frequently on social innovation, civic participation, diversity, and community building; and has served on President Obama’s transition team and the White House Council on Community Solutions.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.