Who Do You Speak For?

It’s a ques­tion I’ve been ask­ing oth­ers late­ly and also of myself. If lead­er­ship involves help­ing ful­fill a felt need, then what is the need and who are those who have it? Aung San Suu Kyi, locked up in her house or in prison for most of the last twen­ty years, nev­er­the­less speaks for those in her coun­try and every­where who need free­dom and secu­ri­ty. Karen Tse speaks for men, women, and chil­dren lost in jails around the world. Mar­tin Luther King, Jr spoke for all who yearn for equal­i­ty and jus­tice. Who do you speak for? What is their desire? Their need?

Ear­li­er this year, Dick Richards post­ed four tow­er­ing con­clu­sions about lead­er­ship, one of which was that “a com­pelling insight about the needs or aspi­ra­tions of a group of peo­ple is far more impor­tant to inspir­ing com­mit­ment than is a vision.” He makes the point that vision isn’t the thing — it’s the insight into the needs of oth­ers that enables lead­er­ship. This speaks direct­ly to the ques­tion. Who is this group of peo­ple — for you? What are their needs and aspi­ra­tions? What is your insight?

Sim­ple ques­tion, but more chal­leng­ing to answer. Maybe it sounds like just anoth­er ver­sion of “What do you stand for?” Except that framed in this way the ques­tion requires us to put real faces next to the abstract val­ue state­ments that might seem to be an answer. It requires us to think about the his­to­ries and expe­ri­ences of spe­cif­ic peo­ple we know and their coun­ter­parts with whom we are as yet unac­quaint­ed, and not in some abstract way but the most con­crete way pos­si­ble, as if in a qui­et moment we had lis­tened to them all, their truths, and then decid­ed what lead­ing might actu­al­ly mean.

As man­agers, we may feel we do not have the lux­u­ry of ask­ing such a ques­tion — or that it is too com­plex to answer giv­en all the com­pet­ing needs of our con­stituen­cies. And, after all, we have work to get done or we will be called to task by oth­er man­agers, who can also be called to task if they fail. So who do we speak for, real­ly?

In every kind of work­place role, we may see our­selves as try­ing sim­ply to get through the day, the week or month, as try­ing to pro­vide val­ue in a way that pro­tects us from the mis­for­tunes of crit­i­cism, loss of rep­u­ta­tion, unwel­come assign­ments, or job loss; that pro­tects us from becom­ing vic­tims. Who do we speak for? Or do we speak for any­one at all?

It seems to me the domain of lead­er­ship is found pre­cise­ly in voic­ing some­thing felt, some­thing need­ed by many, some­thing per­haps that has not been effec­tive­ly artic­u­lat­ed. In that there is always a choice: to draw on the worst and most self-inter­est­ed and self-pro­tec­tive of aspi­ra­tions, or to call for the best that we human beings have to offer. The great lead­ers, the ones who inspire and who last, choose the best. It’s not about them ver­sus us. Not about man­age­ment ver­sus labor. Lib­er­als and con­ser­v­a­tives. Pow­er-less ver­sus pow­er-ful. It’s about a felt need that waits beneath the dif­fer­ences for an oppor­tu­ni­ty to rise, an oppor­tu­ni­ty to make itself known through the voice or actions of some­one who oth­ers judge to be leading.

I am sure I’ve told the sto­ry before — about a class­ful of super­vi­sors from a gov­ern­ment agency, the Nation­al Park Ser­vice. Half-way through the class, which was on basic top­ics such as coach­ing, meet­ing design, and facil­i­ta­tion, there was a bit of a mutiny. Some­one said that the class was all well and good but nobody had the time or resources to do any of the things I was train­ing them on. There was an audi­ble rum­ble of agree­ment. Yes, oth­ers said, that’s right. We can’t use any of this stuff because we don’t have the time or resources. Obvi­ous­ly, a nerve had been touched. So I asked if they thought it would be bet­ter to close the class and sim­ply send every­one back to work. Well, that was­n’t quite what they were expect­ing to hear, either. I want­ed to test the mutiny, probe it, not run from it. “I bet you have some resources,” I said. “What do you have?” After a long silence, some­one said, “the mis­sion.” And then he repeat­ed it out loud, from memory. 

…to pro­mote and reg­u­late the use of the…national parks…which pur­pose is to con­serve the scenery and the nat­ur­al and his­toric objects and the wild life there­in and to pro­vide for the enjoy­ment of the same in such man­ner and by such means as will leave them unim­paired for the enjoy­ment of future generations.

Bureau­crat­ic words, I thought, but a silence ensued. I thought maybe some­one would say, cyn­i­cal­ly, “Oh come on, now.” But no one did. Instead a thought­ful mood descend­ed on the group. Bless that guy for repeat­ing the mis­sion. It was­n’t about the mis­sion or vision, real­ly. It was about his insight into the needs of the group. He was speak­ing for that whole room, and every­body who worked for those who were in the room, too. Some­one then added, “The oth­er thing we have is great peo­ple.” And this brought anoth­er rum­ble to the crowd, this time a rum­ble of assent and con­vic­tion. And while this moment cer­tain­ly did­n’t take all the super­vi­sors’ frus­tra­tions away, it cer­tain­ly touched them and remind­ed them of why they were there, the ful­fill­ment of the deep­er need, what was best about them and what was also much big­ger than any­one alone. Need­less to say, the work­shop went on, but infused with a dif­fer­ent kind of energy.

My own answer to the ques­tion of who I speak for is that I always want to use my voice on behalf of those who most strong­ly feel their itch to grow as peo­ple, as indi­vid­u­als who serve some­thing greater and bet­ter, who choose to do their inner work and learn­ing so that their out­er impact means some­thing, and is real. Look­ing back, I see that it is to these peo­ple (and to that part of every­one) that I have devot­ed the very best aspects of my work, and maybe my life, too.

PS. If you enjoyed the link to Karen Tse’s incred­i­ble work, you might also wish to down­load this pdf, in which she shares some of her own per­son­al and com­pelling lead­er­ship journey.

Technorati Tags: , , and Reflective Leadership. Link to blog posting. Link to Oestreich Associates website.

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