December 10, 2011

Leadership is a Process of Community

One of the most paradigm-shifting concepts I teach in leadership is that leadership is a process of community.  Most people come to understand the concept but it does not fit within the traditional American model of leadership.

The traditional model of leadership is that there is a single heroic person that large groups of people follow.  Whatever that person says to do is what the followers do.  It is the classic "find a parade and walk in front of it" model of leadership.  While this model of leadership makes for good movies, when we deconstruct leadership, we will not find a hero at the heart of leadership.  We will find community.

Our greatest leadership challenge today is confronting the reality that our communities have fallen apart and social connections exist mostly online.  We do not know our neighbors.  We eat fast food alone in our cars next to other people eating alone in their cars.  We pay people to care for our children.  We pay people to care for our elders.  We pay people to cook our meals and mow our lawns.  We pay people to educate our children until they are old enough for us to send them away where we pay other people for "higher education," removing our students and their talents completely from our community.

Our communities are now collections of individuals structuring their lives in every way possible to avoid contact with other people.  So what is the result of this in terms of leadership?

Burn out.

I consult with many people who have tried to start something for the social good and burn out because they are "doing all the work."  They are expected to be the hero.  Why is this the most common model now?  Two reasons...

1.  We perceive leadership as someone else's responsibility.
We have culturally lost the concept that leadership is a collective effort.  Martin Luther King, Jr. did not march for freedom and equality alone.  He was the visionary voice for the collective effort of hundreds of thousands of people.  He would have accomplished very little if he did everything alone.

But when our communities are not connecting, there is no substance within which social action can take place.  It is like trying to turn on a lamp with no electricity.  You can flip the switch all you want, but unless there is electricity flowing to the light, nothing will happen.

This is the very reason that our businesses, organizations, schools and government build hierarchical structures.  They try to institutionalize and systematize a proxy for authentic leadership structures because we have lost civic engagement right along with our community connections.  In short:

Hierarchies have become the organizational cast for the broken arm of community.

2.  Our consumer culture tells us we can purchase the answer to any problem.        
We have abdicated our responsibility to solve problems and we try to purchase our way out.  My doctor is responsible for my health, not me.  My nanny is responsible for my kids, not me.  My local school is responsible for educating my child, not me.  My favorite restaurant is responsible for my meals, not me.    

This cultural practice is the reason why entrepreneurship has become the drumbeat of America.  Create market solutions to social problems, which includes everything from acne to saving the environment.  These two cultural views create the perfect storm that destroys the traditional model of leadership and highlights the greatest shortcomings of traditional leadership:

Leadership is powerless without community.  

If everyone thinks leadership is someone else's responsibility, there will be no leadership.  If our culture tells us we can purchase the answer to any problem, we will look to purchase leadership.  This is why corporate CEOs are paid such high salaries.  It is a function of these two cultural constructs in America.

However, if we acknowledge the reality that leadership is powerless without community, our paradigm shifts to see that community is the heart of leadership.  Our paradigm changes from asking "who is the leader?" to "who is leading next?"  This paradigm shift reveals several truths about leadership.

Traditional "leaders" are really visionaries.
The "leader" or "hero" people perceive is not doing all the work.  They are usually the person who has the clearest vision for a group's actions.  However, hierarchies tend to confuse visionaries with positional leaders and disempower communities in the process.

Leadership thrives where there are no clear answers.  So, when trying to create social or organizational change, people will naturally have questions on where to go, what to do and why.  They are not looking for someone with a fancy title to answer their questions, they are looking for someone to communicate a clear vision that can inform their actions.  Today, organizations place the responsibility of communicating the vision of the organization in the mouth of the person with the fanciest title.  So, you can see how we begin to equate leadership with people with fancy titles.  And if you do not have a fancy title, you are not a leader.  Hierarchical structures in organizations perpetuate the perception that leadership is someone else's responsibility.  However, if we see the visionary, not as the "leader," but as one of many important pieces of a community-based leadership movement, we empower everyone in the community to contribute their "gifts" as a critical piece of the collective effort we call leadership.

Leadership is an action, not a person.
When we see leadership as an action, it brings into sharp focus the problem with the concept that leadership is someone else's responsibility.  When leadership is an action, you are either doing something or you are not.  There is no soul searching or personality assessment needed to figure out if you are a leader.  Leadership has nothing to do with who you are and everything to do with what you do.  As I like to tell my students, "leading is leading and sitting on your butt is sitting on your butt."

Leadership is a process of community.
When we get away from the idea that leadership is not a person but rather a collective action of community, we see that every person plays a critical role.  It empowers everyone.  It engages the minds and talents of everyone.  It places the responsibility and accountability on everyone.  The action that creates the positive change becomes the focus rather than the hero who is supposed to ride in on a white horse and save us all.

We have to change our paradigm if we want to see progress in our communities on any social issue.  Want to solve something?  Build a community of action that empowers people.  Others will point to it and call it leadership.  Why?  Because leadership is a process of community.  To co-opt a line from Vince Lombardi:

Community isn't everything.  It's the only thing.

For an outstanding roadmap to building community, read Peter Block and John McKnight's "Abundant Community."

December 6, 2011

Georgia Tech Students Lead Social Change in Health

Georgia Tech Health Leadership Teams, Fall 2011
This week finishes up an amazing semester with Health Leadership Teams at Georgia Tech.  Over the last few months, the students pictured above have touched hundreds of lives on campus with activities and messages for healthier living.  They were all part of the HPS 1040 health class taught by the School of Applied Physiology under the direction of Dr. Teresa Snow.  All the students volunteered to design and launch health improvement programs for extra credit in the class.

The projects were "of the students, by the students and for the students."  After two class sessions on leadership and an additional three-hour training with me on transformational leadership and social change, the students launched their programs.  The programs included:

GT Beginners Fitness Club - Encouraging and motivating students to get active who don't know anything about fitness.  They went twice a week to workout in a no-pressure, fun environment.  Their ad headline was "Can't do a push-up?  Neither Could We!"  

Health Cooking Classes in the Dorms - Students came up with healthy recipes and taught their peers how to cook delicious, healthy food on a student budget at three different dorms.  One event fed fifty students!

Take A Walk In Our Shoe - Campus walking pledge for students to sign.  In just four hours of recruiting, more than 100 students signed the walking pledge and skipped using the campus buses.

Few Steps Can Make A Difference - Thwarted early on by administrative red tape to decorate stairwells on campus, students studied elevator usage vs. stairs usage and interviewed students about why they take one or the other.

Healthy Trunk or Treat - An off-site event for kids in Carrollton, GA.  A 500 person community event now has a voice for health.  Silly Bandz replaced candy and the team made pamphlets detailing the "trick" of obesity and diet-related disease and the "treat" of healthier living and what parents could do for their kids' health.

The Health Leadership projects not only empower students to create needed change on their campus to reverse the health crisis, they increase student learning in a STEM field and bring communities of students together around the shared value of healthy living for all.  You should have heard the stories of the fun students had together, right along side the vitamin and phytonutrient content of butternut squash.  It was an inspiration for all.

In taking the final picture, the students all said, "low-fat CHEESE!"

Stay tuned for the next round of Health Leadership projects.  The next step is expanding the model:  more students, more social change and a healthier world.

December 2, 2011

Whole Food Desert?

After my first shopping trip to Whole Foods for the food stamp experiment, I have to admit the outlook for this month is bleak.

I used every cost-saving technique I know...
-Make plant-based meals
-No processed junk
-Buy in-season
-Buy in bulk

Even after all that, my grocery bill for the week was nearly double what it was last month.  I'm still under budget, but not much.  For every fruit or vegetable I usually buy, add 30 - 50 cents per pound at Whole Foods.  Same thing with beans and rice in bulk.

And don't even think about buying those same beans and rice in a package with a brand on it.   You'll have to break out the dreaded letter "X"multiplier to double or triple the price.

Every vegetable was perfect as was every fruit and not a flaw was found.  However, the obvious lowest sale price you will see on fruits or vegetables was $1.99 per pound.  That's two or three times a sale price at other stores.  When it comes to sustaining your family, the perfect Braeburn apple is not the first thing on your mind.

While I did manage to stay within my budget, I don't feel like I got a deal on anything... and I was looking for the cheapest stuff I could find.

Whole Foods advertises that they are committed to helping people live healthier lives.  However, it became painfully obvious that their commitment is not to people below the poverty line.

The journey continues...


December 1, 2011

On Food Stamps at Whole Foods

We are continuing to live on a food stamp budget.  This time, we are shopping exclusively at the store known to many as "Whole Paycheck."

I must admit, this was my wife's idea.  I'm on board but more fearful than last month.  Is the classic upper class store able to accommodate the poorest shoppers?  If not, having a Whole Foods around the corner would not be much different than living in a food desert.

Today will be our first shopping trip.  More to come...