Category Archives: Developing the world around you

On Meeting the World Where It’s At

I’ve always loved the practice of harm reduction in public health work. The concept is, rather than ask or expect people to change, we recognize that they are going to do the things that they are going to do, and so we put practices in place that at the very least will help people to not do more harm to themselves than necessary. To illustrate an example, drug users are a common group in which the harm reduction model is used, where organizations not only offer resources to help people stop using drugs, they also recognize that while people are using, it’s important to provide things like clean needles and safe spaces to reduce any further harm.

I find that I have been generally dogmatic in my opinions around what I expect the world and people to be. I believe that people should be more discerning, caring, human-centered, insert myriad other words to describe conscious and compassionate living practices. I believe that companies should be more responsible to their employees, in their supply chains, and to the environment. I believe that government’s predominant purpose should be to set a level playing field for all of its citizens so that every person has the opportunity to achieve greatness without systemic and institutional obstacles in their way.

But what purpose does rose-colored glasses of idealism really serve? The world isn’t going to change overnight, and many will even argue that it shouldn’t. So all you are left with is judgment and disappointment that soon slips into cynicism and jadedness. To be a great leader, you must meet the world where it is at. Like the practice of harm reduction, recognizing the steps, however small, and however long they take, even if it means just keeping the status quo in order to avoid any further harm, is an important part of the change process. It’s not holding people to your sometimes righteous and unreasonably high standards, even if those standards come from the genuinely good place of wanting the world to be better than it is. It is understanding why things function the way they do, and however frustrating and sometimes painful, it is pandering to those ways, even if you disagree with them, so that you will be able to start to move the needle.

Practicing radical incrementalism is a helpful way to navigate and strive for your idea of what should be while also being rooted in reality. Radical incrementalism is exactly what it sounds like, making radical, strategically mapped out, micro-shifts that don’t completely disrupt the existing paradigm at once, but slowly and methodically over time. Instead of taking the revolutionary approach of wanting to tear everything down and start over, employing a tactic of radical incrementalism may get you much closer to the just and equitable world that you want to see.

As a caveat and a confession, as practical as this all sounds, writing this was hard for me, because I feel that so much does need to change now and that not making those changes immediately has profound and deleterious effects on people’s lives and wellbeing, and the revolutionary in me sometimes feels like all of this is just a fancy excuse for conceding or giving up. But in marrying the fantasy with the practical, I realize that to be a successful leader in these complex times, we need to be well versed in reality, recognizing there are many players with many stakes, that at many times are at odds with one another, and to be productive and effective we need work within it’s confines, rather than without, to successfully make the change we want to see.

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The Leader, as Follower

There is a common misconception that being a leader means being the one to come up with the best ideas, that it’s about being powerful, or about knowing all the right answers. But being a real leader means knowing how to be a follower. None of us will ever know everything, and even more, so much of what we believe we know is subjective. There are two types of followership in leadership, the first is as a servant leader, following your stakeholders, and the second is following your team.

Servant leadership has become a more recently popularized concept, but has its origins as far back ancient China and the New Testament. The idea behind servant leadership is that the people who you are serving come first, and you create everything you do with them at the center. Much like human-centered thinking, servant leadership is about focusing on the people affected and involved, and making sure they are not only at the center of your planning but that their voices are the influencing factors in your decisions. How this relates to following, is that as a leader, you must invert the pyramid, where the base, or the stakeholders are on top, and the point, or the leader, is on the bottom. Leading from the back of the line means helping to keep people on the path that they want to be following, rather than telling them where they should be going.

Secondly, surrounding yourself with a diverse and knowledgeable team and then taking cues from them will allow you to be a more effective leader by practicing followership. Recognizing that you don’t know everything gives you the flexibility to be able to turn to those around you who might know better, or at least can share different opinions, in order to strengthen your programs and positions. The best thing you can realize for yourself is that working alone is not only counterproductive, it’s unnecessary. The more you look to people to break down your ideas and challenge them, the stronger you can build those ideas up into something more well-rounded and effective.

Taking the suggestions, thoughts, and inputs of all of these people and figuring out how to catalyze their collective ideas into reality is a true sign of leadership. This takes practice in being comfortable shifting seamlessly between being a leader and being a follower.

Being a leader who follows is not about playing it safe and doing what everyone else is doing, but rather, having the ability to dig deep into the needs of your stakeholders, empower and hear the ideas of your team members, and work to build a cohesive plan in collaboration with them and using them as your guide and inspiration.

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A Systems-Thinking Leader

An integral skill of the modern leader is the ability to be a systems-thinker. It is important to use systems-thinking when developing new policies, creating new processes, developing new programs, and addressing current problems and challenges.

Working on cultivating your systems-thinking requires stepping back and constantly taking a holistic approach, where you identify and map out the system you are navigating in order to understand the bigger picture. People, processes, and structures all exist and interact within systems, and it is understanding how each effects and influences the other that will help you to gain a greater understanding for an issue at hand.

This practice can be incredibly hard as we navigate complex and often times convoluted systems that sometimes demand immediate response, but taking the time to understand the whole context is often the first and most important step in intentionally practicing systems-thinking.

Systems-thinking and people

Systems-thinking requires taking a human-centered approach, since at the end of the day it is humans who create and must navigate systems. You must not only be asking questions like who are the stakeholders? But also, when making decisions, setting up businesses, policies, or projects, you should also be looking at the greater whole, asking – what would it be like to be a person living with a disability needing to navigate this system? A woman? Someone from a minority background? Someone with children? People from varying socio-economic backgrounds? Someone living with a chronic or terminal disease? Someone who identifies as LQBTQ? People who observe different religions?

Putting people at the center of your system analysis is a good way to make sure that they aren’t forgotten. It’s strange how easy it can be to map out a system and completely forget the people that the system effects. When you look at plans that are carefully organized but impossible to realistically execute, you can see where the people aspect of the thinking was left out of the equation.

Empathy is a skill that will be addressed in a later article, but it’s important to note that working on cultivating and enhancing your tendency towards empathy is a good way to make sure that you never forget about the “people experience” part of your work.

Systems-thinking and addressing problems

Our world has increasingly become one of instant gratification, creating Band-Aid solutions to try to immediately solve superficial parts of the problems we are confronting. But very rarely does a problem exist in a vacuum, and without thinking about how this specific problem plays into the larger whole, you are only creating, at best, a temporary fix to a more systemic issue.

To practice systems-thinking when addressing a challenge or problem, you need to both look back at the root of the problem, and understand the many different factors that contributed to its manifestation, recognizing that is a part of an overall system and did not occur in isolation. Then, you need to practice “emerging future” thinking, exploring different ways to address the problem as part of the system as opposed to reacting to a specific part, and brainstorming what outcomes those different interventions might have, both in the short and long term. By not taking this approach, you run the risk of short-sightedness and generating unintended consequences.

This is the first of what will be several pieces about systems-thinking, and tools will soon be available to help you cultivate your systems-thinking approach.

Practice: As you are either designing new systems (processes, policies, etc), create a map of the system you are trying to develop and the other systems that it might coincide with. Make sure you create as comprehensive a picture as possible so that you can identify gaps before you implement. If you are trying to solve an already existing problem, take a step back and make sure your solution has taken into account the whole history to what contributed to the problem and maps out the short and long term future using the proposed solution.

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