LEADERSHIP LESSON: What’s standing in the way?

There has been a continuous debate going on about the value of a leader’s ability to inspire others. There is a leadership skill that brings out the best out in people — guiding the individual to find within himself or herself the gifts to contribute in new ways — gifts that resided within them all along. Why are these such important qualities in a leader?

I was cleaning out a cabinet and I found a story about George Washington that I had tucked away a long time ago. Unfortunately, it came to me without notation of its origin. There must have been something that touched me even then, long before I was focused on the art of putting our differences to work. The story clearly demonstrates the usefulness of these inspiring, insightful qualities. President Washington shows by his example what it means to see and ignite the best in people:

“Washington had a talent for bringing powerful, conflicting points of view into harmony. For example, such opposing characters as Jefferson and Hamilton could have split the nation into pieces, but realizing how badly the country needed both men, Washington labored successfully for cooperation and peace. Adopting Hamilton’s fiscal policies, the President was able to place the federal government on a sound footing. And Jefferson’s tremendous reasoning, writing and speaking talents were equally useful in helping to shape the infant government.”

As I’ve taken in the lesson in this story, it came to me that at this time in history, that all of us have witnessed signs of a new generation of leadership blossoming in a way that demonstrates these same qualities in action. We have also witnessed our own power, as citizens, in doing what at one time seemed impossible. What is most notable in these observations isn’t so much that the qualities of the individual leader shine alone. It is the radiance of these special leadership qualities when they are present and connected to others. Everyone shines. The nation unites. The world benefits too by our example.

Do you think we’ve forgotten that the work of change is only beginning?

As we forge ahead to put talk into action, the sea of problems is far-reaching, and seems ever-growing. There are also cynics, blamers, and complainers on every front — the Economy, Healthcare, Foreign Affairs, the Wars, the Environment and…, as well as many side issues to distract and delay our focus and attention on first-things-first. These voices are loud. It’s not that diverse points of view aren’t needed — this is part of our heritage —, but complaints and finger-pointing alone never solved any problem. What seems strangely subdued is our own belief in change, our own confidence, our presence, and our remembrance of the power of our voices to shape our destiny. I admit sometimes the negative spin on anything and everything is overwhelming, but as history tells us, change is never easy.

We have been told we can’t do this by a force of cynics. …We been asked to pause for a reality check. …No matter what obstacles stand in our way, there is nothing that stands in the way of power of millions of voices calling for change.” — President Barack Obama

In a moment of synchronicity, I remembered the full rendition of the Black Eyed Peas “Yes We Can” Song. As I watched it again, now in reflection, it struck me that the Light came through not from one individual’s call to action, but from the many dimensions of difference inspired enough to sing their own notes in response. Click HERE to watch again.

Regardless of your political affiliation, the truth is that we sit at a critical place in our history with issues that are far more important to solve than which side we are on. The images of us accepting and owning the power we hold to change things is a compelling invitation for us once again, don’t you think? There seems to be a GREAT HOPE in the possibility of moving one big mountain at a time, while holding with the vision and taking the action that will influence building a steady, quickening, positive momentum of our nation’s renewal and recovery. Drawing from one of those who changed history again…

“It is always impossible until it is done.” — Nelson Mandela

Your thoughts? What do you think is standing in our way? What recommendations do you make?


Debbe Kennedy
founder, Global Dialogue Center
author, Putting Our Differences to Work
The Fastest Way to Innovation, Leadership, and High Performance

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David Dejewski

I like the sentiment I believe you are trying to express in your post. There are a few factors standing in our way:

One is our ability to communicate. Until recently (with the advent of sites like this) individual government agencies had very little opportunity to share. Most sharing was done on a small scale individual basis, and usually started with the exchange of business cards at a government conference.

Another is culture and heritage. We frankly have a lot to be proud of. That sometimes works against us. There is a sense that the system worked before or it worked to “get me where I am today,” so why shouldn’t it continue to work?

At least in the DoD, we do a lot of banner waving and pomp and circumstance. Pride and allegiance to who we are today is good and encouraged. In some sense, that pride divides us amongst ourselves and prevents us from seeing value in what others (in the same government) do well. This barrier creates a not-manufactured here syndrome. People become almost tribal – rallying not to good ideas for their own sake, but to individuals who wear the colors of the organization to which they belong. Inspirational leaders themselves may in fact cause damage if what they ask people to rally around is something less than the greater good. Inspiring a group of people to view the world in terms that only they are familiar with has been the downfall of more than one inspirational leader.

The last one I’ll mention here is organizational personality. The federal government attracts a higher concentration of some personality types. Generally, we find fewer artists and entrepreneurial types inside the government than we do outside of the government. Generalizing again, the personality that is drawn to the government is a personality that values security and belonging. Government employees tend to be less likely to step out and take risks. The government does have risk takers, for sure, but the types of risks that are considered acceptable are different. The courage it takes to non-conform or to stand out head and shoulders above the rest of the crowd is a precious resource.

I think there is great value in being an inspirational follower. In fact, all inspirational leaders in my book have to master the art of following first. Inspirational followers give leaders fuel for the gut fires that drive them. I’ve been in front of hundreds of people at a time. When the crowd is on fire, I’m on fire. They give me strength – without them, I’m just a guy on a podium with a microphone… crickets.

Inspirational followers don’t follow blindly. They engage and use their talents to sharpen and support their leaders. They find ways to communicate clearly what is needed “at the deck plates” and stand ready to come off the bench and get into the game when called upon. They watch and participate in the plays, try to anticipate, and deliver the message – honestly, completely, and without personal agenda. An inspirational leader’s confidence depends on his or her belief that the information they have is real.

Debbe Kennedy

David, I really enjoyed your thoughtful post. Thanks for taking the time to share a few glimpses from different angles seen from your vantage point. I think we share similar philosophies in many ways. What is interesting to me is that the experiences I’ve had personally working with the people working in the government have been quite exceptional. Bright, smart, generous, open, creative, friendly. GovLoop is a glowing expression of it.

I affirmed from your message that I have walked the path of an inspirational follower and having done so it has changed my perspective as an inspirational leader as you suggest. I think the hardest part to accept at the moment in our history is that there is so much good going on in the middle of all this turmoil, crisis, and chaos—and we could all make significant progress if we could just make a little change of attitude in ourselves, erring on the side of “what’s right to do,” as you seem to also believe in from reading your message.

I built my business on the premise of this piece of ancient wisdom from Lao Tzu: “The real leader you barely know they exist and when the aim is fulfilled, the people say, “We did it!” It has added a clear responsibility for every action and decision and it seems to keep you weaving back and forth between follower and leader. I do love being grounded in what’s real and good.

So where do you think we go from here? What will be the catalyst?
I look at that picture on the mall and it says to me that we do hold the power to change things, if we realize it and commit to open the way to do it. Do you think this is possible?