Too often, I find myself unclear on what makes great leaders. And how I can help great leaders work well as a team.
This is a big problem for me, especially with the appetite I have to make change. If you’re building an organization, a movement, or care about making change in your school, community, or company, this framework and basics might help clarify your thinking.
This post is based on my notes from a training I went to at the Ayni Institute last week.
What are the three key steps to building great leadership teams?
- Recognize Good Leadership
- Find & Enroll Good People
- Create Good Team Dynamics
1. How to Recognize Good Leadership
First of all, let’s start with a definition I recently picked up from Ayni Institute, building off of work from Marshall Ganz and the work of Metro IAF.
Leadership = accepting responsibility to create conditions that enable others to achieve purpose in the face of uncertainty.
We’ll come back to this, but I think the elements of (1) accepting responsibility, (2) creating conditions to enable others, and then (3) the focus on achieving purpose in the face of uncertainty are vital starting points.
In some contexts, we are hiring leaders, in other contexts, we’re recruiting and building teams of volunteer leaders.
For both contexts, I think there are 5 key things we should look for:
- Deep Motivation. Do they know why they’re doing what they do? Why this work? Why do they have this deep, intrinsic motivation? Can they articulate this?
- Vision. A sense of what they want / what they believe is possible. Vision isn’t necessarily the ability to communicate this, but that they have a sense of the way things could be.
- Anger / Grief. Do they have a deep emotional connection to the work. The point being it’s not just in their head, but that they feel it in their heart. For example, I have grief about the state of school lunches, because of the daily struggles I face with helping my daughter make healthy eating choices.
- Patience and Sense of Humor. While anger / grief are a key component to why somebody is motivated to do the work, it’s also equally important that the person also has patience and a sense of humor, because things take time. There will be a lot of loss for most campaigns that are trying to make meaningful change. We want leaders who will be in it for the long-term.
- Accountability. Do they do what they say? One of the most important things you simply cannot train for. Recognizing when people are accountable to what they say is essential.
Since going to this training at Ayni last week, I’ve been seeing these five elements in leaders everywhere — from folks I work with to people I’m trying to recruit. It’s amazing how simple and helpful just having a clear sense of what makes a strong leader. How would you evolve and/or add to this list for your context?
2. Finding and Enrolling Good People
“Who you’re working with precedes what your working on.”
This jarred me when I heard it last week, but the more I think about it, the more it resonates.
It basically asks the simple, but essential question: Who are your people?
- Know Your Turf. What’s the geography? Who are the institutions? What’s the landscape you’re working in? Where might you find the kinds of people you’re most looking to work with Do you have a mental picture of the kind of person you’d like to recruit? I’d want the person to be just like so-and-so… because she is X, Y and Z.
- Play the Field. Don’t invite everybody to the team. Too often we’re tempted to do this. Set a high bar for who you invite. Do they do real work? Do they accept responsibility? You can try people out by setting low bar commitments. Who can you invite to come to this gathering? What kind of people do they bring? Who do they know? Can they think of a list of people they have good relationships with and how do they describe the work they’ve done together? Really take your time and do your assessment before you invite people to join the team.
- Look Behind People. Where do they fit into other things / departments / organizations / communities? You have to ask other people that know them or have worked with them? Try to make real assessments based on results in other contexts. Sometimes it won’t be obvious where to look or who to ask, but take the time to check around & see where they fit.
- Proposition Them. You have to ask them to lead with you. This can be the hardest and most important step. You need to make a real, intentional invitation. For this to go well, I’ve found you need to affirm and name what you’ve seen in them. Take the time to write down and share with them what you recognize about their leadership, their motivation, grief, patience, vision, and reputation of being accountable. Simply naming these things for them will be a kind of affirmation and also help them gain perspective on who they are and what you see in them. Then invite them to join you to be part of making this team. Tell them how you want it to be different and while it may be hard, why you believe in it. Also name what might be in it for them. “I want to invite you to this team, because I think this team can support you in this and that way and help you actualize more of your full potential.”
There’s an element of leadership that’s about spiritual awakening — allowing people and inviting people to reflect more deeply on why they’re here — their deeper purpose and mission — and inviting them to live into that more fully.
The idea in a good team is that it allows you to fulfill your full potential.
3. Create Good Team Dynamics
- Culture. Early and intentionally setting your culture might be one of the most important things you can do. What does this mean?
- Decision-making. How do the decisions get made? Do you use the advice process? Or what is your process? Even if it’s simple, naming it together is better than not talking about this. Otherwise, the person with the most informal power will set the tone of the culture around decision-making for you.
- Rituals and Shared Practice. For us at CPA, we’ve gotten into the habit of quarterly retreats as a staff and making sure we do some improv exercises / games at each retreat as a way to be silly, have fun, and use more creative sides of our brains together. (And because we have a great team member who loves leading improv games.) Another practice is making intentional time to evaluate after each meeting we have. Even if it’s just 5 minutes, we try to make it a practice that we share one feeling word on how we felt the meeting went. We try to draw a few takeaways, lessons, things that could have been improved and ask ourselves: “Did we get the reaction we wanted?” An organizing mentor used to say: “If it’s not worth evaluating, then it’s not worth doing.” In other words, we’re creating a culture of continuous learning. What are the shared practices that make up your ideal team culture?
Find ways to Relationship Build. This is the bedrock of our team culture. Making intentional time to deepen our relationships with one another, and also taking time in our interactions with clients, investors, everybody — to build relationships. So often our culture focuses on the transactional, the tasks that need to get done, the project management to do list, the goals we have to achieve our bigger purpose. However, if we don’t take time for the relational, we miss the opportunity to form a deeper emotional connection that might be essential for the unexpected down the road.
- Accountability. What are the processes for holding each other accountable? How do you create space for mutual accountability? Is it team check-ins? Shared reflection on goals? A periodic write-up on the meetings/conversations we had and where our latest thinking is as a result of those? Did we do what we said we’d do on the timeline? If not, what happened? Why?
- Training. Doing a training together can be an interesting way to set a standard for the work and in a way be another form of accountability. It offers a great way to combat awkward power dynamics or experience differentials in a group. If everybody goes to the same training, agrees to the new, common set of expectations, then there is a new baseline.
- Meetings with Purpose. Ensure your meetings have purpose in a broader arc of what you’re trying to accomplish. Make sure folks know why they’re coming to your meeting, what the purpose is, the intended reaction(s), decisions to be made are ,and that they have all the necessary information / reports in advance so that the time in the meeting isn’t sharing information or something that could have been shared in advance. For example, the IAF “campaign cycle” goes through five stages. Your meetings might have more purpose if you fit them within your broader campaign roadmap:
- Relationship Building
- Research, Cut the Issue
Here’s another example of a Campaign Cycle from Marshall Ganz at Harvard University.
If you found this helpful, I recommend:
1. Checking out your local community organizing affiliate – with Metro IAF or otherwise
2. Learning more about Marshall Ganz and his online courses / trainings: https://online-learning.harvard.edu/course/leadership-organizing-and-action-leading-change
3. Checking out the offerings of the Ayni Institute and their research on social movements https://ayni.institute/training/
4. From a more business angel, the work of Seth Godin, his blog, podcast and his Akimbo Workshops. For example here’s a post about how things can be different for your organization & how it starts not at the bottom, but at the foundation.
Or think about joining us at the Community Purchasing Alliance: CPA.coop!