Thinking about civic leadership.
In a book promoting leadership in the fractious and noisy civic context of contemporary America, it makes sense to settle on a definition of "civics." If asked, the majority of people might characterize it as the interaction of citizens with government, focused on government oversight and operation. But we embrace an emerging understanding that broadens this description beyond government to include the role of ordinary citizens and others in the organization and workings of society to address common concerns. Embedded in this enlarged understanding is the notion that each of us shares directly in both the problems and opportunities of civic life, so we bear some responsibility for making progress.
As the conception of what "civics" meant expanded, so did the understanding of what it would take to make progress in this challenging arena. In the 1960s, Peter Drucker, one of the twentieth century's great management thinkers, spoke often about the importance of civic life, asserting in his book Management, for example, that to be legitimate, management had to be "responsible for the social impact of its enterprise" (p. 17). The reigning interpretation of civic leadership at the time held that this responsibility could best be fulfilled through social and volunteer work from those at the highest levels of the social hierarchy rather than through ordinary citizens themselves. Those at the top organization levels could be part of an elite, guiding force for civic life. Although not explicit, this interpretation often meant that a few influential and--hopefully--public-minded white men could and should decide what was best for the rest of us.
These were powerful men, at least within their own towns and regions, who knew other powerful men. They were men who thought they knew what needed to be done and went about doing it. For them, this meant doing things for others, without consultation, without engagement. In this way, the right things could be accomplished and the wrong things avoided, all without the turmoil and bother of a more inclusive and democratic civic culture.
Today, after decades of unrest and social change, this limiting conception of civic leadership no longer serves. No one has the authority or influence to tell anyone else what to do unilaterally, and the complexity of the issues strains our capacity to comprehend how we might make progress. Our present-day multicultural society, with its diverse and cacophonous factions, further complicates attempts to gain agreement, and the current polarizing and divisive civic culture undermines efforts to work out differences in ways that better reflect the common good. Tracing the history of the great social movements that so dramatically changed civic life along with the evolution of thinking about leadership provides a deeper understanding of the rationale for the Kansas Leadership Center's (KLC) work.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, four great social movements came of age, changing the civic landscape in manifestly different and clearly visible ways that carried profound implications for civic engagement and civic leadership. These provocative movements--civil rights, grassroots, environmental, and women's--threatened traditional power structures, radicalized and mobilized unheard or disenfranchised voices, and, at times, menaced the country with anarchy when institutions failed to change quickly enough. Each movement, with its own long, challenging, and sometimes tragic history, seemed to mature and converge at roughly the same moment.
Years of protest and active resistance to racial segregation, primarily in the South, propelled civil rights to the forefront of American minds. The daily drama of televised beatings, fire hoses turned on protesters, and dogs tearing into marchers heightened the tension. For many, the August 28, 1963, March on Washington symbolized the resolute power of the movement. Martin Luther King's defining "I Have a Dream" speech helped set in motion a legislative trail that culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These actions brought African Americans and other minorities closer to full participation in civic life and eroded the power of one race to control the lives of another.
Saul Alinsky opened his 1971 book Rules for Radicals with this paragraph: "What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be. The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away" (p. 3). No anarchist, Alinsky wanted to work at the margins of the political system by organizing unheard voices to challenge those at the center. With no shortage of poverty-stricken workers and families, angry protesters of the Vietnam War, civil rights activists, and disillusioned children of the middle class, Alinsky tapped into this latent energy to openly defy authority, assert needs, and demand change. Organizing the multitudes at the grassroots level could effectively challenge the traditional power of position, money, and influence. Events such as the student strike at Columbia University in 1968, which ultimately forced the university to open communications to respond to students' demands, played out across the nation. This newfound capacity to organize and act helped grassroots or community organizers put the issues of housing, economic development, and health care for the poor on the table. By creating advocacy groups around countless concerns, activists stymied the capacity of one part of society to act unilaterally. Alinsky's work continues to shape community organizing to this day, as evidenced by Tea Party activists using his principles to help organize their local campaigns.
In his book Bloody Unrest, environmental activist and writer Paul Hawken described the environmental movement as the largest social movement in the world. It was not always so. Before the 1960s and the publication of Rachel Carson's powerful critique of the impact of industrial pesticides on the environment, Silent Spring, environmentalism was the bailiwick of an elite and educated few who either cared enough or could afford to think about humanity's impact on the natural world. Carson's book democratized the movement, paving the way for powerful environmental advocates such as the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society to push these concerns to the foreground of public life. Now squarely on the agenda, these issues gained broader support from the masses while at the same time alienating many in the world of business and politics. No longer could influential industrialists or governments disconnect, without notice or protest, the interests of their institutions from the broader interests of citizens and the country.
Social revolutions ebb and flow. After great successes, causes often lay dormant awaiting renewed energy and action. And so it was with the women's movement. The actions of the first wave--the suffragettes of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries--gained the right to vote for women in 1920. Despite this substantial success, a woman's place remained in the home in most American minds. Even World War II's demand for industrial workers to be replaced by women, as "Rosie the Riveter," failed to provide much impetus. The postwar desire of returning soldiers for peace, good jobs, simpler times, and comfortable lives at home squelched the ambitions of many women enticed by their WW II experiences. In 1963, Betty Friedan's book, The Feminine Mystique, churned up the waters again. The book, with more than 3 million copies in print by 1966, described the discomforting and unsatisfactory circumstances of women's lives. The only way out, as many saw it, was to undermine the patriarchal myths about women's roles that closed them in. Since then, the women's movement has acquired new dimensions encompassing workplace rights, such as freedom from sexual harassment and a desire for equal pay for equal work, along with a much more expansive view of sexuality and power. Once again, a social movement had changed lives for the better while expanding America's civic and political landscape.
These movements have irrevocably redefined for the better who should be included in American civic life and the concerns that provide its focus. Many more people with a stake in public problems now demand a say in the political decision-making process and a place on the public's agenda for their concerns. By challenging the common, prevailing understanding through resistance and confrontation, these movements also created new demands and unexpected consequences. For one thing, newly empowered participants in civic life undermined the leadership capacities of the "city fathers." No longer could a small group of mostly white males on their own initiative chart the course of their communities and regions. Some people look back with nostalgia on these "simpler" times, lamenting the loss of control and ability to act. Others celebrate the possibility of a broader base of community members taking on the responsibility for leadership. Few understand what it takes to get something done in this civic world turned upside-down.
The notion of leadership is a curious one and deserves exploration. At its most elemental, leadership entails one person influencing others to do his or her bidding. This raises a number of provocative questions. How does one do this, and why would others follow? What is the magic that allows some people to be effective when others are not? What and whose ends should leadership serve? Is leadership an activity or a position? How does authority differ from leadership and what kinds of challenges are best addressed by each? Do different contexts--for example, political, organizational and civic--demand different approaches to leadership?
These are not questions with easy, self-evident answers. Leadership scholars have long struggled with these questions. Tracing the evolution of contemporary thinking about leadership helped the team answer these questions and begin to characterize the Center's guiding theory.
Prior to World War II, few people seriously pondered such questions. Biographers wrote about great men as leaders while business experts conflated the term "leader" with that of "manager," but no one looked at leadership itself as a concept to be studied. The war's vast mobilization of men and women for the military and industry raised questions about setting direction and motivating people, thus seeding the beginnings of this field of study. With millions of people at work and at war, understanding leadership became crucial. Then, in the postwar years, because of the mass of data available on industrial and military performance, the study of leadership took off. Further enriching the field, psychologists working with social issues in communities and businesses struggling with employee performance problems fueled experiments in group dynamics and leadership.
Until the study of leadership developed some legitimacy and the great social movements of the 1960s and 1970s created multiple centers of influence and power, two pervasive ideas constrained thinking about the subject. First, the untested assumption that leadership capacity was narrowly, not widely, distributed in the population excluded most people from the role. The thinking was that leaders are born, not made. This self-serving notion helped those in "leadership" positions justify and protect their roles. Second, the conflation of leadership with authority meant that the leader or an elite few could decide what should be done: Through inspiration, persuasion, or by somehow compelling people to achieve specific ends, the leader leads and followers follow.
Refuting these traditional defining ideas, broad spectrums of historically excluded peoples--African Americans and women, for example--took up the mantle of leadership to address their own needs. The capacity to act was no longer concentrated in the hands of a few at the top levels of the country's organizations and institutions. It became clear that making progress in any arena--business, political, nonprofit, or civic--would require new conceptions of leadership distinct from authority and position.
With changes fomenting in the decades before, 1978 marked the maturation of leadership as a field of study. In that year, political scientist James MacGregor Burns published his seminal work Leadership, a difficult-to-read study that had far greater influence than Burns had anticipated. It defined leadership as a field of knowledge and a phenomenon that could be analyzed and studied: In doing so, Burns brought focus and direction to this nascent field.
He also raised the ante about what leadership could and should mean by distinguishing two fundamentally different kinds of leadership: transactional and transforming. According to Burns, a transactional leader engages followers in exchange for something valued, such as money, status, or votes, but this exchange does not bind "leaders and followers together in a mutual and continuing pursuit of a higher purpose" (p. 20). He contrasted this with transforming leadership in which the interaction of "leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality" (p. 20). The two types are not mutually exclusive. Transforming leadership may accomplish all the ends sought by transactional leadership yet go beyond to inspire, to elevate, and to define goals constituting a renewal of social vision. This delineation of aspirations set the tone for the future of leadership studies and helped distinguish the field from management. Not coincidentally, Burns's work mirrored and described the transforming experiences of millions in the great social movements of the time.
In his Pulitzer Prize--winning biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Roosevelt: The Lion and Fox, Burns explored that president's Machiavellian tactics, later saying in an interview with Hillel Italie in the Boston Globe, "He was a manipulator, and at the same time he had to be a lion. To what extent did he use the tactics of a fox in order to advance the wishes of a lion? To what extent did he have to be a transactional leader to be able to become a transforming leader?" This predicament--balancing the immediately practical with a transcendent purpose or vision--remains the central dilemma for anyone interested in exercising civic leadership.
From questioning why some people succeed in leadership while others languish, Burns also probed the origins of leadership. Grounding his work in Lawrence Kohlberg's theory of moral development and Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of human needs, he hypothesized that "it is in the congruence of the levels of need ... and of the stages of moral development that leadership is animated, politicized, and enlivened with moral purpose" (p. 73). He wrote that leadership development paralleled human development: A person grew through developmental experiences that might call forth a drive to exercise leadership. The further a person progressed through these developmental stages, the more likely the capacity to exercise leadership would be to emerge.
Burns's thinking on leadership development coincided with the exponential growth of the human potential movement. Human beings, in this view, had the "potential both for individual self-realization and for civic virtue ... for an almost indefinite expansion and realization of people's human and generous possibilities" (p. 73), a premise that led to a fundamental rethinking of assumptions about how to develop these attributes. Humans could and would continue to develop throughout their lives; learning was not confined to youth and adolescence. Because personal development provides the foundation for leadership development, an individual's personal development and leadership capacities could be enhanced by participation in structured programs. Effective programs use a balance of experiential, cognitive, and reflective learning processes to engage the whole person by integrating physical, emotional, social, mental, and spiritual aspects and focus on learning processes rather than task completion, content knowledge, or skills. If social responsibility and civic virtue were inherent aspects of leadership, the task of teaching others to lead implicitly carried these same expectations.
Burns's ambitious vision of what leadership could be and his disciplined study of this phenomenon brought rigor to a loosely defined and amorphous field. After Burns, leadership would no longer be subsumed in the study of management or viewed narrowly through the lens of epic biographies of great men. His insistent focus on the transcendent dimensions of leadership legitimized its study and established a normative dimension that had been lacking. Burns's work paved the way for leadership development organizations that aspired to his transformative vision.
Nearly a century ago, Mary Parker Follett, a New England political scientist, anticipated today's civic challenges in her audacious critique of American democracy, The New State. Writing in a time when few people used the words "leader" or "leadership," Follett foreshadowed contemporary thinking on these ideas, defining power as "simply the ability to make things happen, to be a causal agent, to initiate change" (p. 99). Going further in this essay on "Power," she distinguished "power over," the coercive power or influence of one person or group over another, from "power with," the synergistic potential of joint action. She argued that working together in a deliberative way to bring out differences creates the possibility of a deeper, more integrated response that goes beyond the limitations of compromise and concession. She understood that "power with" required a more consultative or facilitative style of energizing others to be effective.
Steeped in the tradition of New England town hall meetings, Follett saw deeply democratic local action as the root of better politics. Without glamorizing localism--she understood the limitations of a narrow parochialism--she struggled to make American democracy more inclusive and participatory. Her own rough-and-tumble experience with small, deliberative groups--social centers, as she called them--in Boston's poor Roxbury neighborhood taught her the hard realities of this work. Often set up in public schools, these social centers provided a place where citizens could come together each week to take up local challenges and find practical ways to address them. Citizens were encouraged to do the work themselves rather than relying on social workers. The meetings were designed to bring out differences in a give-and-take process that acknowledged and preserved a diversity of individual ideas and insights and to change them through interaction to create more unified responses and synergistic action.
In a country grounded in rugged individualism, these deliberative practices didn't come naturally. In The New State Follett recognized the need for "people learning how to evolve collective ideas" (p. 19). "We must deliberately train for citizenship as for music, art or trade" (p. 367). Through the various forms of local civic engagement she created, Follett used deliberation and group activities to stimulate development of the skills for working together and the motivation to act for the good of the community. These pioneering forums for civic leadership development set the stage for a deeper evolution of community leadership programs decades later.
A half century after Mary Parker Follett, John W. Gardner came to similar conclusions about the need for widespread civic engagement. Gardner, whose career in public service began during World War II and lasted until his death at eighty-nine in 2002, served six presidents in various roles, including secretary of health, education, and welfare under Lyndon Johnson. He also started Independent Sector and Common Cause and, in his last years, chaired the board of the National Civic League. He put his remarkable reflective powers to work writing nine books on public service and leadership and, as one of America's great public philosophers, inspiring countless Americans to action in civic life.
Gardner understood from his experience that if the nation were to make progress on its toughest problems, leadership would have to pervade all segments of society and that it would have to be a profoundly different kind of leadership than traditionally practiced. The challenges were too complex and the interests too diverse and conflicting for top-down leadership to be effective. The civic culture--the norms and practices of civic life--was too divisive and too reliant on government as the driving force. Few people acted across factional boundaries or spoke reliably about common interests.
Because of these conditions, wrote Gardner in his book Leadership, "We must develop networks of leaders who accept some measure of responsibility for the society's shared concerns. Call them networks of responsibility, leaders of disparate or conflicting interests who undertake to act together on behalf of the shared concerns of the community or nation" (p. 29). The key to civic progress, in Gardner's mind, was to transform the default civic culture from a "war of the parts against the whole" (p. 19) to an inclusive, engaging, and collaborative one that could make communities better for all. To do this required building relationships, skills for working together, and a sense of responsibility for the future of the community or region. Broad access to powerful civic leadership development experiences in America's communities and regions could speed this transformation.
In the 1980s and 1990s, several keen observers of American civic life, including John Parr, Bill Potapchuk, Neil Peirce, and Curtis Johnson, noticed that some communities were making notably more progress on civic challenges than others. While not yet the norm, civic engagement was at the heart of these successes. Two aspects characterized these more successful communities. First, a few civic-minded people recognized that the default civic culture--the "war of the parts against the whole"--hindered progress. Second, they made conscious choices to do something different, convincing others that more progress could be made by working across factions rather than against each other. By serving as conveners, catalysts, and facilitators of these initiatives, these people were learning how to exercise leadership in an inclusive and collaborative way.
"The table gets larger and rounder," (p. 10) wrote civic journalists Peirce and Johnson in Boundary Crossers. Community Leadership in a Global Age. "[T]he agenda gets tougher" (p. 22) and "no one's excused" (p. 34). Working across factions and engaging unusual voices had become a way of life in some places, even if it was messy and frustrating. Not coincidentally, those places making the most progress also were reaping the benefits of years of investment in community leadership development. Mary Parker Follett's vision was coming alive.
Leadership, according to leadership guru Warren Bennis, a contemporary of Gardner and Burns, "in its simplest form is a tripod--a leader or leaders, followers, and a common goal they want to achieve" (pp. 3-4). This narrow assessment captures the conceptual orthodoxy accepted and developed in most leadership writing and research. In this view, leadership implicitly resides in an individual in a distinctly hierarchical relationship with followers, a narrow conception that helped sustain the belief in the exclusive rarity of leadership capacity and the conflation of leadership with authority. Burns, too, operated out of this paradigm, in his book defining leadership as "leaders inducing followers to act for certain goals" (p. 19).
But another, more dynamic way of looking at leadership is to view it as an activity or process that energizes or mobilizes others to make progress. By detaching leadership from position and authority, one opens the possibility that each of us has the opportunity to exercise leadership at any time in any situation. This democratizing notion is both liberating, because each of us has the capacity to lead if we so choose, and demanding, because each of us then shares responsibility for making progress. "Followers" can no longer defer to or blame those designated as "leaders" for lack of progress.
Rural Kansas has been fertile ground for more than wheat and cattle. Back when Wesley Hospital served the citizens of Wichita, Kenneth Benne, a graduate of Kansas State University in 1930, began his long career in education as a schoolteacher in Concordia and Manhattan. Rooted in this experience and with a subsequent Ph.D. from Columbia University's Teachers College, Benne helped develop the field of social foundations of education by analyzing the relationship of education and social contexts. During World War II, Benne connected with psychologists Kurt Lewin and Ron Lippitt and fellow educator Lee Bradford, who were researching military morale and psychological warfare. After Lewin's death in 1947 and inspired by him, Benne, Lippitt, and Bradford started the National Training Laboratory, an institute that produced fascinating and influential insights into organizational development and leadership.
Lewin and Lippitt already understood how different approaches to leadership could dramatically affect the behavior of a group. In the early 1940s, experimenting with small groups of young men, they found that laissez-faire leadership led to cynicism and authoritarian leadership led to obedience or infighting, while democratic leadership led to tolerance, less selfishness, and more conscientious behavior. They also noted that when a group's leader changed to someone with a different style--say, a democratic leader replaced an authoritarian one--the group quickly began to reflect that style. One obvious implication was that if one could increase mastery of different leadership styles, one could become more effective in a wider range of situations. Much of the subsequent work on situational leadership built on these observations. Less obviously, this research signaled a step toward understanding leadership as an activity or process rather than a position or authority.
The Connecticut Workshop, run by Benne, Lewin, Lippitt, and Bradford in 1946, pushed the learning deeper. In his book The Age of Heretics, Art Kleiner related how the four, operating on the premise that "You cannot know an institution until you try to change it, and you cannot change it without reflecting on its purpose" (p. 30), didn't hesitate when asked to intervene in a tense situation in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Fifty participants from many walks of life--teachers, social workers, businesspeople, community organizers, union members, housewives, and even a few gang members--came together for two weeks to work out some of the city's ethnic and racial tensions in a group setting. Using role-playing, small-group discussion, and a three-part process Lewin called "unfreezing," "learning," and "refreezing," group members confronted their biases and fears. "Unfreezing" allowed a person to shed old beliefs, "learning" provided new ideas and approaches, and "refreezing" solidified new behaviors. As the work progressed, Lewin and his partners noted the dynamics of the group and observed how participants had changed through the experience. One of the more reticent members of the group, a social worker named Mrs. Brown who became an active and verbal leader during the process, caught their attention in particular. Looking back on and evaluating what they had witnessed, Lewin and his partners concluded that participants in groups like these (they called them T-Groups) could learn and dramatically change by reflecting on their behaviors in the group and experimentally applying what they had learned in subsequent group activities. It was also clear, as exemplified by Mrs. Brown, that leadership in these leaderless groups was not dependent on one's position or authority. Anyone in the group could exercise leadership at any time if he or she wanted to.
Several decades later, Harvard Business School professor John Kotter staked out new ground surrounding the purpose and activity of leadership in his book A Force for Change: How Leadership Differs from Management. Referring to leadership as "a process that helps direct and mobilize people," he distinguished it from "a group of people in formal positions where leadership ... is expected" (p. 3). He went on to note the confusion caused by the second definition because "it subtly suggests that everyone in a leadership position actually provides leadership" (p. 3) when this is obviously not the case.
An effective process of leadership produces movement. Leadership is a "force for change," unlike management, which must produce predictable, orderly results. "The function implicit in this belief is constructive or adaptive change" (p. 5) and is achieved by attending to three tasks or subprocesses: establishing direction by developing a vision, aligning people to cooperate to achieve the vision, and motivating and inspiring people to keep moving toward the vision. By explicitly focusing on purposeful change and the processes required to bring it about, Kotter took another step toward understanding leadership as an activity rather than a position or authority.
Perhaps the most trenchant contribution to the unraveling of leadership orthodoxy and the development of the Kansas Leadership Center's philosophy came from an unlikely source, psychiatrist Ron Heifetz. Picking up on Kotter's thread that leadership is a force for change, Heifetz recognized its inherently conflictual nature. Political, organizational, and civic challenges are adaptive by nature. Their complexity demands new and unorthodox responses to make progress; the status quo simply will not do. To change existing circumstances, one must confront them. This means confronting all the attachments people and organizations have to their own ways of seeing the world. Changing these views entails loss of identity, status, or other valued aspects of one's life. Few people, it seems, are willing to undermine their own identity without immense provocation.
Heifetz's background clearly shaped his understanding of leadership. As a psychiatrist, he was trained to provide expertise by diagnosing a patient's condition and prescribing a way forward. On the other hand, psychological issues generally resist such technical solutions and require the patient to do work of an adaptive nature to make progress. These challenges are complex and systemic, meaning that routinely treating a symptom is unlikely to address the root cause. He (the psychiatrist) may be able to provide some observations about the patient's condition, make some inferences about the cause, and provide some advice about how to face painful circumstances and develop new attitudes or behaviors, but for real progress to be made, the patient must do this work. Just as the psychiatrist mobilizes the patient to do work, leadership must mobilize others to do work. In this sense, anyone with the gumption to act can lead. As Heifetz and Sinder write, "There is no such thing as 'seizing leadership,' since leadership is not a position but an activity" (p. 194).
Creating useful change in a world of fragile human beings with hypersensitive egos is no easy task. These are psychological challenges, and Heifetz insists they be seen as such. To create change requires intervention: an activity. For that activity to be effective, one would have to appreciate and consider these psychological dimensions before and as one acts. Intervening is an experimental and improvisational art with no guaranteed outcome; indeed, the activity of leadership begins with a personal intervention from anyone with the courage to act.
Most contemporary students of leadership acknowledge that it can be learned in carefully designed programs in which powerful teaching interventions impel participants into transforming experiences. These experiences can help a person come to terms with the risks and benefits of exercising leadership while building up courage to intervene or act. They can also help participants become more purposeful, conscious, and intentional, thus more effective, in their practice of leadership.
Not surprisingly, from Heifetz's perspective, the most challenging obstacles to becoming more effective at exercising leadership are psychological. Embedded in a person's psyche or ego, largely automatic and unconscious responses constrain how one acts or reacts in a given situation. Heifetz calls these responses "defaults" that can be reset by increasing awareness of them and cultivating a wider range of responses. Through a careful diagnosis of one's capabilities and the nature and demands of a particular situation, a person can more effectively respond to make progress.
In the last twenty-five years, Heifetz and his Harvard JFK School partner, Marty Linsky, pioneered a powerful pedagogy--later adopted by KLC--capable of challenging and expanding these default settings even with those most resistant to change (curiously enough, often those with the most success in leadership roles). Starting from the premise that all of the raw material needed to learn about leadership is alive and well in any group, their case-in-point method seeks to use the immediate experiences of individuals and the group to help participants learn about leadership. The dynamics of a group in the classroom--competition, authority, power, deference, dominance, and so on--mimic both the challenges and the opportunities for exercising leadership in communities and organizations. Through the case-in-point approach, Heifetz and Linsky help participants confront the gap between their aspirations and their own, often feeble, attempts to achieve them. This is difficult and disturbing work for most participants because it forces them to acknowledge how much their behavior--their part of the mess, as Heifetz and Linsky called it--contributes to the lack of progress on the issues they care about. Confronting habitual and comfortable behaviors in this way often leaves participants disoriented as they attempt to digest and integrate these experiences. It takes moxie to do this taxing work with others. Case-in-point teaching helps others recognize how fraught leadership is with both the strengths and frailties of human beings. Learning to cope with these aspects in an experiential way helps people understand what it takes to realize their highest aspirations in a world of conflicting interests and competing values where difficult choices have to be made.
This much is plain: Exercising leadership--either within or beyond one's scope of authority--is inherently risky. The risks are both personal and professional. Self-esteem and reputation are both at stake, and once a person intervenes, he or she loses significant control of the outcome. The willingness to risk depends on how much one cares about making progress on the presenting concern and one's tolerance for the ambiguity of an uncertain outcome. Confronting personal psychological obstacles that impede learning and progress requires an openness and courage few people possess. Learning from the mistakes that will occur can be more difficult as well as more fruitful than understanding successes. These are daunting challenges, and it's not hard to imagine why so few people are willing to exercise leadership on the concerns they say they care about.
The rewards are perhaps less apparent but equally motivating in the writings of Follett, Burns, Gardner, and Heifetz and Linsky. All recognize the hazards and the difficult, even excruciating work of exercising leadership, yet each provides the inspiration for pursuing it. In their own way, each expresses the passion and thrill of personally exercising leadership as a way of bringing meaning and purpose to their lives.
The exercise of civic leadership is often viewed as an individualistic endeavor designed to further one's own desires about what should be done to address concerns affecting us all. A much more appropriate view for the twenty-first century would be to reframe it as sharing responsibility for acting together in pursuit of the common good. One way of visualizing this would be to imagine an expanding circle of concern moving, for example, from self or self and family to the community and the region. This would involve both feeling and taking a broader sense of responsibility for civic concerns that recognizes our individual complicity in these problems and thus our implicit responsibility for helping make progress on them. Feeling this responsibility, each of us would help initiate action with others on behalf of the larger community, forming, in John W. Gardner's term, a constituency of the whole.
The Italian Renaissance painter Ambrogio Lorenzetti, in his captivating fourteenth-century fresco "The Well-Governed City," gives us an allegorical exploration of two themes common to the art and ideas of the time: justice and the subordination of private interests to the common good. In substantial detail, he portrays and celebrates the civic pride and communal responsibility citizens felt for their beautiful Tuscan city of Siena and its surrounds. The civic culture he depicts captures the citizens' mutual respect and their consistent concern for the common good over private interests, and his vivid images of prosperous people and a fertile countryside radiate the virtues he had observed: peace, fortitude, magnanimity, temperance, prudence, justice, and felicity.
Similarly, we can imagine the essence of a more constructive civic leadership that brings more attention to the common good. Rather than a ruggedly individualistic pursuit of our own ends, many more of us would demonstrate a more expansive sense of care and responsibility for the communities and regions in which we live. Instead of limiting our conception of what civic responsibility means to that of a passive, law-abiding "good" citizen activated only when our own backyards are threatened, our first impulse would be to engage others to work across factions in the service of the broader good, reflecting the pervasive application of KLC's principles and competencies of civic leadership.
Going deeper into our vision, we would see many more people from all walks of life taking the initiative to exercise civic leadership in more purposeful, provocative, and engaging ways. Toward this end, we've suggested that progress on adaptive civic challenges would be measureable and that we would see an increase in bridging social capital leading to a more inclusive and productive civic culture. The sense of reciprocity implicit in this kind of social capital would help make the inevitable losses of adaptive change palatable. We would have credible forums where people could come together to deliberate in constructive ways. New and more trusting relationships would help facilitate interaction across social and factional divides while building coherence and a sense of belonging. Learning together would lead to new understandings of civic challenges and previously inconceivable strategies for addressing them. These engagements would help create a critical mass of people with the collective credibility to hold implementing organizations and authorities accountable for acting on agreements.
These are descriptors of what we might see, but we often fail to recognize a more personally rewarding aspect: We become better people when we put these concepts and ideas into action. Perhaps this is why, for some, this work has such spiritual and religious resonance. We know, too, that these potential outcomes are not pipe dreams, the unrealistic expectations of recalcitrant human beings. We have the stories and experiences to know that civic leadership and civic culture can be profoundly different, reflecting the visions and ideas of the many key thinkers who have informed our work. We would realize, for instance, Mary Parker Follett's aspiration to help people develop their capacity to work together and their sense of responsibility for the broader community. Leadership would be transforming, as James MacGregor Burns described it, pursuing a higher collective purpose over the achievement of narrow, parochial ends. People catalyzing work across factions would lead to John W. Gardner's "networks of responsibility" in service of the broader good. Many more people exercising leadership would help shift the emphasis from position and authority to the activity of leading, freeing us from the fetters of more traditional, sometimes exclusive and narrow ways of defining leadership.
We've learned from our work in Kansas that exercising leadership in the civic sector poses more challenges than in any other arena--public, private, or nonprofit--in the sense that there is so little capacity to use authority to compel others to act. While this observation grew out of our experience in a particular state, a closer look at the civic context in other communities, states, or, indeed, the nation would lead to a similar conclusion. A glance at any newspaper or newsmagazine quickly dispels the notion that these pervasive characteristics belong only to Kansas.
Editor's Note: "We've written this book because we believe that the civic leadership has far more potential to respond to today's civic challenges than its current practice allows," note David D. Chrislip and Edward J. O'Malley in the introduction to For the Common Good: Redefining Civic Leadership. The book, a lucid and valuable contribution to the fields of civic engagement and leadership development, grew out of their experience in working with the Kansas Leadership Center in Wichita, Kansas, the subject of a National Civic Review case study by Doug Easterling (Volume 101, number 4), "Scaling Up Civic Leadership: Combining Individual-Level Change and Culture Change." The following article has been adapted from two chapters in the book with permission from the authors and the Kansas Leadership Press. [c] 2013 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
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David D. Chrislip, senior fellow at KLC, has spent thirty-five years engaging with the concept of civil society and in the work of civic leadership and collaboration.
Edward J. O'Malley, a former state legislator, is president and chief executive officer of KLC.