When I signed up for a graduate class this past spring in Leadership and Communication at the University of San Francisco, I expected to learn what it takes to lead teams, make speeches, corral the masses, inspire through force of personality. But I would come to learn that Leadership is not necessarily about stepping to the forefront or the podium, and often anything but; there are various ways to be an effective leader.
The semester was made up of four projects, all of them challenging in different ways, but I felt that two of these, in particular, illustrated what has come to be my new understanding of good leadership. In one I led a code of conduct assignment to create a vision and mission of our graduate program that aligns with the University’s code and values. Not surprisingly, I discovered that leading a project takes a lot of energy and responsibility. As a leader, you need to manage not only the workload you take upon yourself, but also understand the volume of work you end up putting on the team. Every thought and idea needs to have a clear direction because without clarity a great deal of time and energy can be lost. I enjoyed being at the forefront, but felt more like a manager than a visionary, and I was surprised to find that I was okay with that.
This notion took an even sharper turn in the final project of the semester, which would turn out to be the most rewarding of all. In this case, I was not in charge, but just another member of the team. In this “lesser” role, I learned how to collaborate with the different styles and temperaments of other group members. And I came to discover that leadership is not just about being the captain and the one who directs every task; it is also – and sometimes even more – about being a reliable and proactive contributor to the team, ever willing to launch and engage in constructive exchange.
This final assignment was a grant writing and development project in which four student teams in the class competed for a pot of money that our program would then donate to a local nonprofit organization. Each team was asked to identify, approach and work with a nonprofit; these included a children’s museum, an organization that taught youth to tell radio stories, a nonprofit dedicated to delivering showers to the homeless, and my group’s partner: an environmental organization.
Our nonprofit holistically addresses land-use issues across the Bay Area—including land conservation and smart growth development. Our proposal was to expand the business objectives of the organization by increasing social media activity, developing social strategy that connects the CEO and the targeted audience, increasing the visibility of the CEO, and arranging events and outreach for the organization.
Our team leader took charge of dividing the tasks to me and other teammates, as well as conducting the whole process, from finding the organization to coming up with the proposal idea. With so much to do, it’s often a challenge for leaders to stay on top of small tasks, and as excellent and talented as our leader this was a challenge in our case, too. A few days before the deadline we were struggling to come up with a specific marketing solution for our proposed funding. After our leader sent the proposal draft to us, I read it and felt that there was something missing. Our team had somehow overlooked some key small details, focusing instead on the bigger picture.
At that moment, I thought about my expectations for my teammates when I had led the first assignment versus the expectations of this team, where I was not the leader. And there it was: I remembered how grateful I was to my group when they had proposed a new design for the Code of Conduct that I hadn’t considered, and just how right their design was. I had been too busy looking at the big picture to see the obvious, the small details that ended up making such a difference.
I proposed to our leader that we create a new marketing plan that would include software platforms, PR campaigns, and specific costs of every step. This way we could present our proposal with more confidence. The leader welcomed my idea and expressed her appreciation that I had brought it up, and we ended up creating a new marketing plan that was well received by the organization.
In the end I came to see myself as every bit the leader in a non-leadership role than I had been in a leadership role. At least in this case, the adage “Too many cooks spoil the broth” did not apply. Rather, there’s something to be said for this more horizontal rather than vertical approach to working in teams. If we’re all leaders, and we all see each other as such, and if we check our egos at the door, we have a greater chance at success.