Ed O’Malley and Julia Fabris McBride Urge Everyone to Become Leaders, Regardless of Position

Ed OMalley and Julia Fabris.

Julia Fabris McBride and Ed O’Malley of the Kansas Leadership Center redefine leadership as an activity — not an executive title — since everyone at every level can help lead their organization to tackle the biggest barriers to progress.

Ed O’Malley and Julia Fabris McBride Say Leadership Is Not a Title, It’s About Everyone Helping to Solve the Toughest Challenges

Ed O’Malley has a B.A. in history from Kansas State University, was a gubernatorial aide, and then a legislator in the Kansas House of Representatives for two terms, with a record of bipartisan funding of economic development and education. He left politics, took courses on leadership best practices at the Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School in 2007, and the same year founded the Kansas Leadership Center at KSU in Wichita.

Julia Fabris McBride is a former actor with a diploma from London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and a B.A. from Case Western Reserve University in Theatre and English. She became a certified leadership coach in 2004 and joined KLC in 2010.

Neither would seem to have been destined to co-author a book to redefine what effective leadership really is, based on their training of over 15,000 individuals from all levels of a wide variety of organizations, with another 2,000 each year. A group might include a small business owner, an executive at a global corporation, a firefighter, pastor, university president, nurse, teacher, construction worker, and a nonprofit president.

This groundbreaking, just-published volume, “When Everyone Leads: How Tough Challenges Get Seen and Solved,” argues that leadership is not a position, but an activity, that everyone at every level needs to pitch in to address big problems.

The book is also distinguished by its lack of fluff, getting right to each point, buttressed by a variety of lively examples from their clients. Chapter 11, “Leadership Is Risky,” for example, describes the dilemma of a small business that received a one-year contract as a supplier to a large manufacturer. If successful, a multi-year contract would follow, but everyone is already stretched so thin that management feels they need to discontinue other work to perform well enough for the first year. That has its own risks.

“Whatever your context, the odds are high that your team is contributing something to the existence of your group’s biggest challenge,” Fabris McBride told Startup Savant. “Perhaps those closest to you are failing to make necessary changes or refusing to relinquish habits that get in the way of progress. Trying to get your people to address their piece of the challenge carries with it a lot of risk.”

Why don’t more of us suck it up and take the necessary risk? There are three common reasons:

  • Our purpose isn’t clear enough because we haven’t done enough work to define the leadership challenge.
  • We overinflate the risks, convincing ourselves that the necessary risks are too dire. 
  • We tried risky leadership before, and it didn’t go well.

“Take heart,” they wrote. “The mindset you are developing as you read this book, the inspiration to contribute to groups where everyone leads, and the new skills you will learn to support your leadership will serve you well for the future.”

But how much risk is too much? They advise taking time to pace the new efforts, striving for incremental change, not setting unrealistic deadlines, being as consistent as possible, experimenting, and getting feedback on failure and progress.

The Wizards of Leadership Aahs

“It’s human nature to try to ignore a problem or blame it on others,” said O’Malley. “Even when everyone can see the gap between what the organization should be accomplishing and where it is at the moment, change is hard. Groups often want to avoid negative arguments by focusing on areas where they seem to agree, doing busywork rather than shaking things up to be more productive.”

Real leadership is about big changes: long-standing issues, problems that have complicated histories and aren’t the responsibilities of one person or department, and challenges that do not offer an easy way forward. 

“Julia worked with a couple of directors who were creative geniuses,” they wrote. “But theatrical genius is useless by itself. These directors needed actors and playwrights to contribute ideas and take artistic risks. Without designers and technicians bringing their imagination and unique perspectives, these directors would just be dreamers. Their success was the result of everyone in all roles, giving their creative best. Likewise, your team won’t reach its biggest aspirations if only one top authority tries to lead. Closing the gap between where your organization is and where it should be takes leadership from the many, not the few.”

They recommend not aiming for a distant goal that might be ideal but is not very realistic and getting a win that could be the foundation for the next steps.

For anyone who wants to contribute to leading change, start with an informal listening tour of those with a stake in the outcome who may have different perspectives. Or do a quick online survey. “If you control a meeting agenda, add some open-ended questions to stimulate a discussion.” Then set up a 1-2 hour meeting with a focused scope of conversation, but leaves plenty of time for exchanges that do not attempt to get to a consensus. If the group is more than half a dozen, do some breakouts as a way of getting more ideas.

A lot of different factors make it hard to reach an agenda for positive change, including pressure to make a profit, complacency, competing values, and interpersonal conflicts. Some people will be afraid to speak up, they can’t stand rejection, or they tend to get mired in details. One important decision in assessing challenges is to separate technical problems from what the authors term “adaptive challenges.” Technical issues can be resolved by the relevant experts with the right support. Adaptive issues are big organizational challenges that are often hard to define, require development of new tools, require patience and time to solve, and willpower to get there. They often rest on resolving conflicts in values and the creation of loss, which is hard for many to accept. 

“It’s easy to trick ourselves into believing we can solve our biggest challenges, but avoid the discomfort that comes with adaptive work,” they wrote. “It took months or years to create a problem, like declining sales, so it will take many shifts, big and small, to create lasting change.”

The quick fix is alluring: it lets us off the hook to divert our gaze from the gap between where we are and where we need to get to; we get to indulge in doing something we’re already good at; and it pleases the people in positions of the most official influence, like a board of directors. 

Leadership of the many means addressing the major problems in the gap by doing more experiments to encourage innovative solutions, setting a more realistic schedule, and not overpromising while making a serious effort to overdeliver.

Start Leadership With Yourself

Want to see a change in your organization? 

“Whether you are a CEO, an entrepreneur, a middle manager, front-line employee, an independent contributor to an organization, a mayor, the head of a nonprofit department, or a member of a community, leadership can mean authorizing yourself to do something above and beyond what is expected,” O’Malley said. 

Some examples the authors give from their own cases:

  • A new employee realizes that unless she asks the tough questions in a staff meeting, the elephant in the room will be ignored.
  • A long-time department manager realizes that rather than answering every question from his staff, he should ask them for ideas, creating space to discover their own solutions, which might turn out better than what he had in mind.
  • Some community members, frustrated by unhealthy levels of polarization in the city, decide to model the type of communication they would like to see, inviting those with opposing views to get to know each other better and encourage finding common ground.

“When you authorize yourself to lead, you feel more engaged in your work, you no longer wait for permission to make things better, you empower yourself to make a difference wherever you go, and you become part of the solution,” the authors wrote. “For 15 years we’ve pioneered a new model of leadership that puts the challenge at the center, rather than the leader.” 

When the challenge-centric model is adopted, five things happen that energize solutions, they discovered:

  1.  Everyone realizes how hard leading is to address the most serious challenges.
  2. They discover what real progress would look like.
  3. Everyone recognizes the limits of their own ability to make change, no matter their official responsibility.
  4. They become eager to share the workload. 
  5. Priorities become clearer to everyone involved.

It should be easiest to start with our own part of the mess, but we naturally guard our self-image and surround ourselves with people who think as we do. But if we accept responsibility, it is the first step to leading positive change.

One of the keys to getting this to happen is to start where you have the most influence, they say, because that is where you are likely to get results. You can get started immediately, you already have credibility in that circle, it’s where you can mobilize some progress from others who are contributing to the problem, and with experience in leading, you will get better at bringing about change.

 Fabris McBride and O’Malley wrote that understanding “heat” is one of the keys to making progress:

Think of your organization as a skillet. Exercising leadership involves taking the temperature and regulating the flame–doing everything you can to keep the oil bubbling at just the right temperature for change. If the heat is too low around an important challenge, not enough people get engaged and understand the need for change. On the other hand, if the heat is too high, a fight or flight response kicks in. Tensions escalate and conflict disrupts all attempts at forward motion. To solve the really tough challenges, we need to find a middle place from which people who see a problem differently can all recognize the challenge and feel the freedom to contribute, ask questions, and experiment with solutions.

To keep the heat down, it’s important that you, as a leader, stay calm in the face of clashes and try to keep everyone focused on the big picture while making sure they feel it’s ok to express different opinions. Encourage everyone to see tough situations as learning opportunities. Recommend a deeper effort at diagnosing the problems rather than deciding on solutions immediately. 

But if the temperature is too low, people will tend not to feel pressure to do anything, avoiding the discomfort of change. Stimulate thinking by asking powerful questions about root causes, exploring different interpretations, and having an honest discussion about where the organization will be in a few years without changes. The goal is to get the discussion into the “productive zone,” the balance where participants feel the need for as much change as the group tolerates, and get positive results from experiments. Getting a B-plus for progress is better than aiming for an A-plus and failing.

“Leadership is an activity to engage others to solve daunting challenges. They appear in our professional lives, in our communities, in our families–and they seem unsolvable, beyond our ability to see what needs to be done or outside our capacity to make the changes needed. They are not. That’s why everyone can lead and the real power to solve our most important challenges is when everyone leads.”

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Scott S. Smith

Scott S. Smith has had over 2,000 articles and interviews published in nearly 200 media, including Los Angeles Magazine, American Airlines’ American Way, and Investor’s Business Daily. His interview subjects have included Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Meg Whitman, Reed Hastings, Howard Schultz, Larry Ellison, Kathy Ireland, and Quincy Jones.

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