Thursday, November 1, 2012

Growing into a Leader

Thankfully, leaders and future leaders today live right in my classroom at Sherman Middle School.  For this semester, my teaching partners and I wrote curriculum to coincide with the presidential election, focusing intently on leadership qualities and actions.  Students have been analyzing political, historical and pop culture figures to help them explore and answer essential questions related to leadership.   When I started thinking about people I wanted to talk to about leadership, a few came to mind right away.  One of them was Kelsey Livingston - someone I’ve known for a very long time and someone I observed make a mark on the world in more ways than one.  When I shared Kelsey’s piece with my class, they were engaged and curious about her work not only as a professional but as someone who exemplified particular leadership qualities and actions they have been studying.  Here, Kelsey taps into real-world applications to life and the world of work as she shares her ideas about leadership.  Enjoy!

When I was younger, I would have described a good leader as “in charge,” “having a plan,” “giving direction,” and “disciplined.”  I felt sure I was quite a good leader—as my family and friends will tell you, I am quite good at having a plan and giving other people things to do!

It turns out, though, that as I’ve aged my definition changed substantially. Here are some leadership characteristics that I have grown to value:

·      A leader takes initiative and recruits others. Many people become leaders unintentionally by identifying a problem or project that no one else seems to be addressing.  When a leader sees this kind of void in leadership, she or he steps up to fill it and starts taking action, even if it’s hard or uncomfortable.  Often, this involves recruiting others to join in the cause.  Rarely does one person have all the skills and connections to finish a project or address a problem themselves—it usually requires a team to achieve a goal.  A talented leader can help gather that team and harness their work.

·      A leader provides a framework and goals. The best leaders provide a structure that values the skills and the time of their teammates. Good leaders communicate to set expectations, provide benchmarks, and help the group get to know each other. By setting measurable goals, the team has something to aim towards, and they feel their time and input is valued.  A leader does not always need to create the framework and goals unilaterally, but suggesting these structures where they are otherwise lacking is valuable.

·      A leader listens and facilitates.  By definition, a leader has a lot of power.  When you are seen as the leader of the group, it’s easy to use your power to emphasize your own ideas.  I find that the best leaders don’t start a conversation by sharing their solutions—they step back and let their teammates share. They help to facilitate the conversation by explaining the project, setting a goal, summarizing ideas, and trying to draw the team to consensus.  Sometimes, it helps to mentally keep track of who has spoken, to be sure that everyone is given the opportunity to share. Leaders certainly share their own ideas, but their goal should always to find the best outcome regardless of the source.

·      A leader recognizes teammates’ contributions.  To become a leader in your group, think about how you can enable others. Talk with other members of the group, and get a sense for their interests and personalities. What skills do they have?  How can they contribute to the goal?  Try to work together to find things they’re excited about taking on, rather than just assigning them tasks.  And celebrate successes!  For example, if you notice a teammate who doesn’t typically speak up offer a good suggestion, consider writing him a note afterwards, or just saying in the moment, “That was a great idea!”  Don’t be afraid to be silly or over the top in your recognition of individual or team achievements.

·      A leader takes feedback well.  I went to graduate school to study the creation of interactive games and experiences. One of the most important lessons from this experience was to take feedback well.  During the in-process reviews, the professors gave feedback in front of the whole class.  Frankly, the people who looked most small-minded and defensive were the people who argued with the feedback and tried to justify their approach.  The ones who looked the most graceful and confident were those who listened politely and who said, “We’ll think about that. Thanks for your idea.”  This is not to say that you always have to believe or do what people tell you, but that learning to listen attentively and thoughtfully to other people when they are suggesting improvements to your work is both hard and important.

·      A leader chips in. There’s a poem I like called To Be Of Use by Marge Piercy.  She says, “I want to be with people who submerge /in the task, who go into the fields to harvest /and work in a row and pass the bags along, / who are not parlor generals and field deserters / but move in a common rhythm / when the food must come in or the fire be put out.”  A leader is the first to volunteer and is not afraid of the jobs that no one else will do.

·      A leader is fun! and the important and related A leader is not afraid to look silly.   There’s an episode of This American Life where Ira Glass interviews Cole Lindbergh, a 20 year old leader of the games division of an amusement park.  Cole motivates hundreds of teenagers who work for him by creating competition brackets, writing motivational songs, and directing music videos with his employees.  Winning employees get to throw him in the lake!  Needless to say, they love him.   Check it out:

To be honest, I have probably grown to value these qualities most in a leader because many of them do not come naturally to me.  It’s important for leaders to know their own strengths and weaknesses, and to value diversity in approach from other leaders.  As a leader, don’t forget to ask yourself, “How can I improve?” and “How can we do this better?” The best leaders I know are constantly learning, growing, and changing the ways they lead.

Kelsey is an organizer of diverse people in creative endeavors. At work, she is an Interactive Project Manager with Cortina Productions, creating games and touch-screen experiences for museums that excite people about learning.  Elsewhere, she enjoys travel, coding, theater, and trying new foods. It should also be noted that she makes a mean chess pie.

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