ServeNext.org Blog

Bottom-up Leadership Series

Posted by gennamcfarland on March 22, 2010

This is the first post in a series about views on organizational leadership, given from a Millennial’s perspective.

As a somewhat cynical college student, I can honestly say that for the longest time, hearing the word ‘leadership’ made me  think of all the labels that peers and I affix to ourselves in the interests of resumé building.  For the longest time, ‘building leadership skills’ was a phrase that made my eyeballs roll into the back of my head; a phrase that was repeated so often that is ceased to have meaning.

Recently, however, an experience as an—wait for it—Alternative Breaks Trip Leader through the Office of Student Programs at the University of Maryland has made me put my old feelings on the subject under review.  Mainly, because I realized that being a leader (whether you’re a student leader or a CEO) is hard, and it takes work.

On my  group’s trip to Guatemala, there were many moments when others on the trip were able to kick back and enjoy things, while I was writing down points to touch on in that night’s reflection activity.  Or, while I was talking logistics with our host at the farm where we stayed.  Or, while I was thinking about who to write ‘Thank You’ cards to.  Or, while I was just trying to pay attention and stay on top of things, in case there was anything else that needed doing.  Make no mistake: there was down time on the trip; I just didn’t get much of it.  By the end of ten days, I was exhausted.  Being in a position where people expect you to know the answers to the questions they ask is not easy.

But leadership, judging from my experiences, goes so far beyond providing answers to people and telling people what’s coming next.  In my case, it was about getting the students engaged with the subject matter (sustainability) and enhancing their experience.  I noticed that the way I led the trip really did impact their experience.  When my co-trip leader and I gave participants good questions to ponder in our nightly reflections, they piped in enthusiastically, questioned their assumptions, and exchanged ideas.  And, when we failed to clearly communicate something, they were confused and plugged into their iPods.  When we made the conscious effort to include everyone and make a space where even the more quiet students felt comfortable speaking, our group was cohesive.  And, when we forgot to pay attention to group dynamics, some students were left out.

The take-home point I got from all of this?  Though my body felt the stress and fatigue of leadership, my leader-y gig wasn’t about me—it was about my peers, and their needs, desires, and contributions.

Needless to say, my awakening to this subject made the following articles catch my attention:

  • Marshall Goldsmith’s HBR blog post, “Leadership Isn’t About You,” in which Goldsmith challenges conventional ideology that “exaggerates, even glamorizes” a leader’s role in heading an organization
  • Another post by Goldsmith, “The Mark of a Great Leader,” in which he discusses the importance of leaders having enough self-awareness and “emotional intelligence” to realize their own shortcomings and let employees rise up to fill in the gaps
  • Juana Bordas’ post in the Washington Post’s On Leadership blog, “Holdin’ Out for a Hero,” in which Bordas discusses how leadership is evolving from being hierarchical to being “collaborative, participatory, and people oriented”

When it comes to leadership, times seem to be a-changin’.  Inspired by my own leadership experience, in the coming posts, I am going to explore how this change is (or is not) seen in organizations all around us, how it’s viewed by fellow Millennials, and how bottom-up and networked structure  is driving social change.  Stay tuned.

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