Natural Leadership: A Critical Lever for Effective Innovation

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Natural Leadership: A Critical Lever for Effective Innovation

Sam Folk-Williams, Knowledge Program Manager at Red Hat, a major enterprise computing company, wrote a standout piece on leadership for the Management Innovation Exchange.  Co-authored by Jim Stikeleather and Michele Zanini, the paper proposes a “dynamic system for measuring an individual’s ‘natural leadership’.  They outline three broad areas of leadership that occur largely outside of, or unconstrained by, organizational charts and reporting authority.

Schools can learn a tremendous amount pondering this parsing of the leadership spectrum.  Schools, perhaps along with the military, are some of the most vertically hierarchical systems in the world, and leadership is ceded to those high on the org chart.  I would strongly argue that, particularly in a time of environmental or market stress, when the organization requires nimbleness to see and meet new challenges, the natural leaders in the organization lie squarely on the critical path to future success.  Why is this the case?  The logic is pretty straight forward: increasing market dynamism requires a decrease in response time (increase in the pace of innovation); innovation requires people who are good at innovating; natural leaders are just that…naturally good at what it takes to innovate in an organization.

Heads of school, principals, superintendents, and faculty department chairs: who in your organization best fits the model laid out below?  Are they in a position to positively impact your future?  If so, get together with them and help leverage their efforts through your part of the organization. If not, why not? Is the organization happy right where it is?  Are you?  If not, make some noise.  Help figure out how your organization can identify, celebrate, support, and leverage natural leaders as opposed to those who have authority largely by virtue of their title.

Natural Authority (their expertise and the value others place in that expertise)

  • Whose advice is sought most often on any particular topic?
  • Who most uses feedback as a driver for iteration and improvement?
  • Whose opinions are most valued, internally and externally?
  • Whose responses are judged most helpful?
  • Who seems truly critical to key decisions?

 Actions and Outcomes (the things a person does that lead to significant positive outcomes)

  • Who responds most promptly and effectively to requests from peers?
  • Who is most likely to reach across organizational boundaries to aid a colleague or solve a complex problem?
  • Who consistently demonstrates real thought leadership by championing ideas and initiatives to fruition?
  • Who proactively seeks to solve organizational problems or make improvements to processes and procedures?
  • Who consistently demonstrates a willingness to take on personal responsibility?

 Audience (who a person reaches through their authority and activities)

  • Who seems to know or is known by the most other employees or customers?
  • Who’s generating the most buzz outside the company?
  • Who speaks at industry conferences?
  • Who keeps a blog or active twitter feed of industry-related topics?

The authors go on to discuss how these can be measured and used to create an algorithm of natural leadership effectiveness within an organization. I am not going to dwell on the measurement aspect of this notion; the attributes of natural leadership largely speak for themselves.

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