January 2009


With the inauguration fresh on my mind, I thought I’d dust off some notes I made earlier in the campaign, before Obama had wrapped it up. First published on my intranet blog in May.

If I can manage to take the politics out of it, I think we can study the 2008 election as a classic contrast in leadership styles. In response to 7 years of rule by a CEO-style president, one who made decisions quickly, held his convictions in spite of public pressure, controlled all messaging and delegated tasks out to his team, we have been faced this primary season with a choice of three candidates who exhibit entirely different qualities.

One is a proven legislator known for compromise across the aisle, with an untouchable war record and painful personal experiences that influence his approach to many of the issues of the day. Like Bush, he’s been known to hold doggedly to unpopular convictions. Some suggest he’s been around long enough that it’s his turn to stand in line for president.

Another is a former first lady-turned-legislator who has mastered the ability to change shape to suit her circumstances. We’ve seen her as powerful lawyer, loyal wife, pained victim, champion of women’s rights, indignant mother, and blue collar worker. Her approach allows her to respond quickly to new challenges, but her past doesn’t seem to give any indication of the direction she’ll head tomorrow.

The third is an entirely different creature, and I admit I’m fascinated. A lifelong Republican, I’m strangely drawn to a man who was identified as the most liberal legislator in the Senate, based on voting record. There’s something about this man that generates response more like a rock star than a politician. Fast Company in April 2008 featured an analysis of the Obama brand and noted how he has tapped the imagination of the younger generations through technology and giving away his brand through viral marketing and social networking.

In particular, I want to focus on their analysis of his leadership style. Author Ellen McGirt quotes Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist and self-proclaimed independent: “I see him as a leader rather than a boss. A boss can order you to do things, sure, but you do them because it’s part of the contract.” In contrast, a leader is one who uses inspiration, respect and trust to motivate others to do things on their own. McGirt goes on to say, “There have long been leaders who are bosses, and bosses who are leaders. Having a vision and inspiring or instructing others to follow that vision have long been hallmarks of business and politics. But Obama epitomizes a new way of thinking called ‘adaptive leadership.’”

“Adaptive leadership.” What’s the difference between that and Hillary’s all-things-for-all-people approach? Ironically for a candidate who draws crowds in the tens of thousands, it’s less about the central figure than either model employed by his competitors. It’s about inclusion and influence rather than control and direction. For instance, Obama’s use of the “Yes we can” slogan, the way he brings people to the table to talk and the way he has spurred the involvement of masses of young people. Rather than act like an imperial CEO, Marty Linsky says, “Obama often proposes process plans that involve a trust in the community at large.”

As many Boomers conclude that he’s being vague and indecisive, they can’t understand why he’s a hit with younger voters. “Obama, through his inclusive Web site and, yes, his lofty rhetoric, reinforces the notion that everyone is included and that this movement is actually a conversation to which everyone is invited.”

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I wanted to call this blog The Reluctant Leader. But Steve Murrell already has a very good blog by that name. In fact, if you’re only going to read one blog, read that one. In fact, he even has a better reason for the name than I do.

I’m not a reluctant leader. In fact, ever since I was identified as a leader by my second grade teacher, I’ve been trying to live up to that label. (I hope I didn’t mishear him; maybe he said I was a “cheater” or a “reader.”)

I have a passion for leadership, and I love seeing others grow in their own awareness of leadership gifts. I find a lot of people in my generation have suppressed and latent leadership gifts. Some are interested in the idea of leadership but have failed gloriously when they tried it. Others are so skeptical of the leaders they know that they’d rather take potshots from the back row. And others have just never tried it or had it drawn out of them.

I remember in college when one of the quietest girls I ever met was asked to lead a small group Bible study. She was phenomenal and knew how to draw the introverts out. Leadership can be hiding anywhere, because leadership is influence. Everyone influences someone.

My passion and calling right now is to study what makes a good leader, how to draw out the best in the people I touch and to be a bridge to established leadership for these latent and emerging leaders.

I came across a newspaper article the other day by this name. I think it was referring to a group of Senators who sat in the back row of the House to observe some controversial vote or debate. But it got me thinking.

Who are the Senators who sit on the back row of the Senate? How would someone come to have a position like that but sit on the back row? Are they politicians who really don’t want to be there? Or who don’t belong? Seems to me they need a club or a caucus or something.

This blog is an exploration of the dynamics of a generation with a fear and suspicion of leadership. What are the issues that hold leaders back and keep people from stepping out to use their gifts? I’m intensely curious about those issues, and as I explore them, I invite others to join the conversation.

After some very helpful feedback from well meaning friends and my wife, I agreed to change the name of my blog. I’m really much more interested in exploring leadership than politics on this site. Senators in the Back Row, while offering an interesting word picture, created confusion. Meanwhile, I’ve received good feedback on this name.

I have a theory that you can’t always tell who’s leading a group by the person standing at the front. One of Wycliffe’s senior VPs shared an interesting story with a group of young leaders at Wycliffe. Reflecting back on her years of teaching, she recounted the first day of class one year when she faced an unruly mob that wouldn’t listen. Observing the dynamics, she realized that everyone gravitated toward one particular student.

After class that day, she asked that student to stay afterward. She noted that he was clearly the leader in that classroom, and she could either work with him or they would butt heads all year. If the latter was the case, she was going to make sure that was not a pleasant experience for him. He did not see himself as a leader, but he agreed to try an experiment: when she needed the class’s attention, she would give him a sign and let him call the class to order.

The next day, the class started out with the same mayhem. After a few minutes, the teacher caught the student’s eye and nodded. He turned to his fellow students and said, “Hey, let’s all sit down. Class is starting.” When they all immediately did what he said, he turned to her with eyes as side as saucers — wide in surprise but also some thought to the possibilities of the power he now had. The class went well the rest of the year because the teacher had realized that she wasn’t really the leader in that setting. The student was the power broker. He led from the back row.