Leading From All Sides

Learning from Practice Seminar Series

The title of last week's seminar, Leading From All Sides: Unleash Your Personal Influence and Start Changing the World, signaled that this was not just another conversation about leadership roles and the qualities that create leaders. In fact, by means of several case studies, Loebs Janelle Chan, Liliana Cazacu, and Neha Bhatt took pains to define leadership as action rather than as role or title. They began with personal stories that distinguished the dynamics of leadership from typical notions of authority and power.

The seminar was the first of 3 in the Learning From Practice series, an idea hatched by the Loeb Fellowship curators and Urban Planning and Design faculty as a forum for Fellows to share their real life experience in the field with students. In this case, Chan, Cazacu and Bhatt revisited experiences they had described during their Meet the Loebs Week presentations in order to bring to the surface lessons about the actions that contribute to leadership.

To overcome a city’s suspiciousness and reluctance to collaborate with her nonprofit to provide resources targeted to new Asian American residents, Chan had to see the situation from the point of view of municipal leaders and ascertain outcomes they would value. It required her to reconsider her own goals and focus on the priorities, while being careful not to lower the bar. She called it “stepping back to move forward.”

Sitting through deadly meetings among organizations hobbled by competition for resources, little trust, and overlapping activities, Cazacu acted to foster more effective collaboration. In order to achieve the federation she proposed, she had to demonstrate gains that appealed to the organizations’ self interests: new projects and more resources, as well as better coordination.

In her yearlong post as aide to a city councilor, Bhatt learned the value of undertaking seemingly minor projects that surprised with big impact and unexpected alliances. The changes she and the councilor achieved in Washington, DC, affected both budgets and priorities and facilitated further strategic alliances.

The case challenge planned by the presenters may have been too ambitious to accomplish in a single hour, but urban design students in attendance indicated that they appreciated the practical grounding. The discussion elicited some important principles of leadership:

  • Be willing to work backstage vs. front stage; you don’t have to be in the spotlight.
  • Lead toward rather than against: mobilize people and resources by appealing to positive values and goals.
  • Periodically reassess goals, and adjust or broaden them when necessary.
  • Strategically cultivate power holders by bringing value into relationships with them.
  • Identify the influencers. Figure out who’s the best person to deliver the message.
  • Be open to both natural and unconventional alliances.
  • Aim for legitimacy; it’s necessary to achieve success.
  • Give credit to others.

During the discussion, Diane Davis (chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Design and professor of regional planning and urbanism) questioned whether true leadership requires going against the odds or achieving surprising outcomes, leaving attendees with another aspect to contemplate as they reflect on their own work and future leadership.

The Learning From Practice Seminars will continue on March 22 and April 4. The Loeb Fellowship website Events page will have the details.

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