Disruptive Leaders and Game Changers: Notes from the Independent Sector 2012 Conference
By Sarah Garmisa,
In November, 2012 more than 100 of this country’s social-sector leaders under 40 gathered in San Francisco to discuss the practice of Disruptive Leadership. Jeffrey Lawrence of Cambridge Leadership Associates addressed the group at the Independent Sector’s NGen (next generation) annual conference for nonprofit leaders, social entrepreneurs, and agents of social change. As an MBA student at the Lorry I. Lokey Graduate School of Business, focusing on non-profit management and social change, I was thrilled to volunteer at the members-only conference, and be welcomed as an NGen participant. For the entire group, Disruptive Leadership was an apt topic. In line with the conference’s “Game Changers” theme, Lawrence’s presentation on Disruptive Leadership introduced a management theory favoring progress and social evolution over maintaining the status quo.
The title of Lawrence’s seminar was “Leading from Center”. In small groups, participants explored the myriad pressures, motivations, and expectations central to their own careers and personal missions. For many, the pressures and expectations were internal because of a common desire to achieve significant social impact. But Lawrence challenged the group to think about external forces, asking, “How do the relationships you develop at work propel your professional goals forward?” Speaking about the need to maintain strategic partnerships with colleagues, he proposed new ways for us to imagine ourselves as leaders of social change.
For trailblazers from the Millennial generation, finding a greater purpose is central to career decisions. Lawrence had us ask ourselves, “What do I need to do to be able to sleep well at night?” We took a few minutes to reflect on two things: first, our greatest joys and second, the world’s greatest needs. Our work, Lawrence said, should be at the intersection of those two things.
All organizational leaders balance expectations from multiple constituencies. To maintain authority as leaders, we must regularly meet those expectations. But change-agents, Lawrence posited, must also learn to disappoint expectations. “If you are only doing what is expected of you,” he cautioned, “then you are preventing things from moving forward.” Rather than leading from the top, disruptive leaders lead from the center of their organizations, managing themselves as much as their surrounding relationships. But “if you’re not getting any pushback,” Lawrence warned, “you’re not doing anything important.”
At the same time, disruptive leaders must find the right blend of purpose and meeting expectations. “Authority,” Lawrence warned, “is given, not taken.” Mission-driven leaders trying to make change from within an organization must learn when it’s necessary to step back to maintain authority, and when it’s possible to make progress by pushing unpopular ideas forward. “You must dance outside the scope of your authority,” he advised. If you want to be an agent of social change in the world, you have to be a disruptive leader.
Based on the above ideas, one might ask, “How does a disruptive leader make change from the middle?” According to the laws of physics, a body in motion tends to stay in motion. Many make the mistake of reaching out to their opposition first, but a better plan is forge coalitions. Pass your idea through a supportive “warm gate,” as he calls it, to drum up applause from champions of your idea. This provides momentum, and when leaders have that momentum, it’s a game changer. Opposition forces with less conviction often melt away.
Lawrence outlined six key relationships that disruptive leaders must foster:
1) Identify your partners. Know the difference between a partner and an ally. A partner will risk something for you or your idea, while an ally will only provide support without taking any personal risk.
2) Understand your opposition. Those are the people who have the most to lose if you succeed.
3) Know yourself. This critical self-awareness will be the number one cause of either your success or your failure.
4) Channel the “troublemakers”. They are the voices of leadership from below. Find a way to direct their voice so the organization does not expel them.
5) Expect casualties. You cannot make significant change without the inevitable casualties. Think of them as learning experiences.
6) Study your authorities. They have a lot to offer. Learn to develop authority for yourself by partnering with someone who already has it.
Perhaps most importantly, disruptive leaders in business, non-profit, or government positions must always be curious observers of themselves and others. If there is a change we want to see in the world, we must remain inquisitive. Directly after Jeffrey Lawrence’s seminar, at the Independent Sector Conference keynote address, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom was on the same page. He declared, “If you don’t like the answer, ask a better question.”
My mind was alight with inspiration and excitement both days I attended the conference. This seminar—as well as other sessions and conversations with attendees—mirrored topics we are currently studying in classes at Mills. Other major themes included the role of data in assessing social impact, alternative funding sources for the social sector, non-profit/for-profit partnerships, and the power of social media. Even days later I am filled to the brim with insights, questions and curiosity about these subjects. It was incredibly inspiring to engage with so many successful change-agents nationwide, from every sector with a social purpose. By provoking questions of myself, and prompting me to ask questions of others, this conference was a game changer for me. It opened my eyes to new ways of achieving impact, and I’ve subsequently gotten more specific about my own mission and goals for achieving impact in my career.
For students at the Lorry I. Lokey Graduate School of Business, which is uniquely dedicated to sustainability and socially responsible leadership, this practice of inquiry is essential to our educational mission. As Mills MBA candidates we are learning to become disruptive leaders by promoting change and empowering ourselves to be socially responsible leaders in the for-profit, non-profit, education, and public sectors. Though I am still in my first semester as a Mills graduate student, I hope to be a student always: asking better questions and looking for the best game-changing answers.