Weekly Column: On Leadership

Friday, May 29, 2009

Let me just start by saying that I highly recommend you watch the TED talk by Seth Godin embedded above, either before or immediately after reading this column. His talk frames this entire reflection on leadership, and his delivery far better than my own.

I must confess that I have been trying to wrap my head around something for a while now, something that has really been bothering me. I have discussed it repeatedly with colleagues (friends, really), and recently one of those friends suggested that I blog about it.

So here goes.

Much of what I am doing in this column is relating Godin's talk to my own experience in the public service. Compared to his talk, this column may also be the most inarticulate thing I have ever penned - but that being said, it is no less genuine.

I am Not a Leader…

Recently a lot of people have been calling me “a leader”, and I have no clue how to react. Mostly because I don't feel like a leader, at least not in the traditional sense: I am not a senior public servant, I have no staff, no budget, no decision-making power. I have nothing that makes leadership tangible in the traditional public service model. By hierarchical bureaucratic standards, I am not a leader. Though I have always tried to be one of those “good people to know” and pride myself on my ability to connect with other people.

…or Am I?

Maybe. Maybe by Godin's interpretation.

My own initial experience in government is a story I only share in person, and a lot has changed since then. I could have walked away and in fact, I almost did.

In the end I chose to stay, but that decision hinged on my unwillingness to accept the status quo anymore. I won't lie, I am a live wire, I speak my mind, I challenge others, and I call things how I see them. At the start, I felt underutilized but I refused to waste away and, by extension I refused to allow those around me to wither away and die the slow death of a thousand bureaucratic (paper and red tape) cuts.

Among the other things that I was doing within my department, I decided to go a bit bigger: I started this blog and I wrote scheming virtuously, both supported by a friend and talented editor from another department.

I enjoy writing this blog, but you should also know that it also adds a lot to my plate. Everything written here receives a lot of thought, and a lot of time – nothing is haphazard, and we never sacrifice quality for timeliness. But I think that dedication gives us credibility. It is precisely why you come here to read it. One of the most important things that this blog, delivering talks, and connecting with others via social media (or in real time!) does is that it allows me to connect with all of you.

The more of you I connect with, the more I realize that we are all looking for similar things but have so much trouble finding each other – we are buried somewhere in different departmental org charts that can often undervalue our ability to contribute, or that throw up roadblocks to our collaborative efforts.

I think this may be one of the reasons why people are pointing that leadership finger at me. But the only thing I am doing is stepping up and challenging a little bit. If something doesn’t make sense, I will say it. If I see value by adding something (or by taking it away) then I will say it.

I think another reason is that I spend a lot of time connecting people. But the happy irony here is that once connected, these people just take off and run with the connection. Perhaps the even happier irony is that these people are already engaged and interested in public service renewal (and all of the related issues). All I am really doing is helping brilliant and passionate people organize around a common story and purpose.

I am a Leader…

Simply put, I tell a story to people who want to hear it; I connect people who, deep down, want to connect with others; I help encourage a movement; and I help make change so that we can all start telling a new and different story.

If doing these things makes me a leader of a movement, then “leading” it (rather, being one of many people leading it concurrently in somewhat divergent directions with the same underlying principles) has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career in public service. I think that this is something we are all after, and this shared desire is one of the principle reasons why you read this blog, why you connect with me via social media, and why you want to share your own experiences with me.

…Are You?

I took this graphic out of Godin’s presentation; I was originally intention was to put my headshot in the middle to try to help illustrate what I think I’m doing and why people are looking to me for leadership. Instead, I opted to put leave the middle empty – because, well, I need your help. I need you at the centre.

You know the key people, you know the issues, and you know what needs to be done better than I do. So with that in mind, I want to leave you with one last point from Godin's TED talk. According to Godin, leaders share certain things in common. Leaders:

  • Challenge status quo;
  • Build a culture; they are curious; they ask questions and connect people; and
  • Commit to the people they lead, not the mechanics of the project.

So, please come join the movement and help make a change.