Thursday, April 7, 2016

Searching for Galvanizing Leadership

"Zero leadership."

"Business leaders have done squat on this issue."

"They're too important to lead."

Over the last week three normally optimistic leaders I know vented similar frustrations. The leaders are from different communities. They were talking about different issues. But their concerns were the same. They know that achieving systemic change demands galvanizing leadership -- the kind of leadership that can unite diverse stakeholders from different sectors to work together to achieve a shared goal. They are frustrated that such leadership is in such short supply. While they each are leaders, they recognized that they weren't in a position themselves to exercise such leadership. Each would be seen as self-serving if they pushed too hard for change.

What made them more frustrated was that other leaders in their respective communities -- leaders who are in a position to exercise galvanizing leadership -- were more than willing to complain about the issue that each were trying to address. They just weren't willing to take the risk of leading.

As Heifetz and Linsky make clear in Leadership on the Line, leadership is risky business. And "galvanizing leadership" is particularly risky as it requires organizational leaders to lead well beyond the walls of their own organization and bring other leaders to the table.

Organizational leaders are very familiar with what it takes to effectively lead within an organization. Many such leaders aren't accustomed to exercising leadership beyond their organization's boundaries, particularly within complex civic systems that lack clear lines of authority and established rules and procedures.

Organizational leaders can be made more comfortable with the risks of exercising galvanizing leadership if they have a better understanding of how change can be achieved within complex civic systems. Yes, achieving such change requires different leadership styles and skills, but many organizational leaders can make the transition. After all, they were smart enough to figure out how to lead within an organization.

Some leaders need to know that the risks of exercising galvanizing leadership have been reduced before taking on the challenging of uniting diverse stakeholders. The risks can be reduced in a few ways, and philanthropy is well positioned to help reduce those risks.

Funders can help reduce the risk of exercising galvanizing leadership by assuring leaders that they are prepared to support a collaboration process if the leader is able to galvanize enough commitments from other stakeholders. They can reduce the risk even more by making multi-year commitments, recognizing that cross-sector collaboration is never a short process.

And the heads of foundations can choose to join with other organizational leaders to exercise galvanizing leadership. There is strength in numbers. Two or three leaders exercising galvanizing leadership is much less risky than asking one leader to go out on stage alone.

Philanthropic leaders have the greatest freedom to choose to exercise galvanizing leadership. Leaders from other sectors have significant organizational/institutional constraints that can limit their ability to cross boundaries and engage others. Philanthropic leaders face few such constraints and often have the kind of credibility and trust that is necessary to help persuade others that the time is right to collaborate to achieve change.

Those of us who find ourselves searching for more galvanizing leadership should probably spend less time looking and more time trying to figure out how we can lower the risk so that organizational leaders are willing to take on the challenge.


  1. One way to potentially lower the risk for leaders to come together is to have clear metrics and measurements that they can get behind on a regional level. We don't need C level exec to create these metrics. Maybe we can first work with lower level data creators to create the dashboard that facilitators can take to leaders to enact change... just a thought ;)

  2. Thank you Chris for such a nice post on Galvanizing Leadership. May be few of us are not even know what exactly it is and how it differ from the normal leadership nature. We all act as a leader at some point in our life and to be a leader means you should be ready all the time to take any kind of risk. However, leadership quality is an inborn quality but it can also be developed with the help of a good coach. To be successful in life, we need to be a good leader first. Leadership coaching.