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.