Asset-Focused Leadership

“Every single person has capabilities, abilities and gifts. Living a good life depends on whether those capabilities can be used, abilities expressed and gifts given. If they are, the person will be valued, feel powerful and well-connected to the people around them. And the community around the person will be more powerful because of the contribution the person is making.”
– John P. Kretzmann and John L. McKnight

If you are interested in developing many of the other concepts we’ve been looking at, such as collaborative leadership, supporting more effective networks of concerned people, and helping them find their power; then Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) is the organizing strategy for you. I have dedicated a good chunk of my life to helping folks discover community-building assets. I have done countless ABCD workshops, and have written about it on occasion. ABCD principles contribute many useful ideas to a re-imagined concept of leadership; therefore, I’ll dedicate multiple sections to it.

Don’t be scared off by the word phrase “community development.” Community can refer to small groups of people who are passionate about the same issue, neighborhoods, or communities of interest – including those made up of people not sharing a community of place. For our purposes, development simply means to make better. Let’s start with the fundamentals.

ABCD, is an approach described by John McKnight and John Kretzmann, in the 1993 book, Building Communities from the Inside Out. It is founded on the belief that communities and neighborhoods thrive when built upon the knowledge, interests, and capacities of their residents, groups, and institutions.  This contrasts with the typical “needs-based” approach where the starting point is based on an assessment of deficiencies.

ABCD is not a formula. Rather, it is an approach to creating positive change that has many paths, but which necessarily includes three elements. One of the roles of leaders in asset-based endeavors to be a persistent compass when it comes to these three filters.

  1. ABCD is, by definition, asset-based. It starts with what already exists in the community. ABCD requires the community to inventory the skills and talents of individuals, the assets of formal and informal associations (including relationships) and those of local institutions.
  2. ABCD is internally-focused. The community frames the issues and challenges, and designs possible plans of action. This internal focus is intended simply to stress the primacy of local definition, investment, creativity, hope and control.
  3. ABCD is relationship-driven. To be successful, communities must be deliberate about constantly building and rebuilding relationships among residents, local associations and local institutions. Relationships create the underpinnings on which trust is built. Sharing common values and goals is one thing, but when you add trust to the mix, you have the beginnings of a recipe for power.

asset vs needOne way for leaders to assess their efforts as they begin is to ask themselves these questions:

  • Who decides what will be done? – Is this the vision of a small group of individuals, or is there a shared vision across a larger group of stakeholders?
  • Who are the producers of results? – Are “interventions” being done to, or for people; or are people accomplishing things on their own behalf?
  • How will the gifts of individuals & the community be identified and mobilized? – What approaches to asset mapping and strategic planning make the most sense?
  • Whose capacity is being built? – Are you simply replacing one rigid top-down system for another?

 Mapping Assets

Simply put, asset-mapping is systematically finding out what skills, talents, knowledge, relationships, and other assets currently exist in the community. This should include unearthing the capacities of:

  • Individuals – Talk to as many people as possible. Don’t forget marginalized people, those whose presence is not frequently (if ever) recognized.
  • Associations – These are social assets. They are not always easily recognized. They are identified by the fact that people are associating with each other without getting paid. The people in associations are together because they share a common passion or interest. Associations can be formal (a church congregation), or informal (a group of friends who meet every Tuesday for coffee at the same café).
  • Institutions – All public, private, and nonprofit organizations including schools, government, and businesses.
  • Physical Assets – This includes things like public space, buildings, and natural assets.
  • Exchange – Financial transactions, including things like deliberate local purchasing or boycotting.

Don’t panic. You don’t have to map the assets of the entire community. This isn’t an exercise in database creation. This is about looking for opportunity. These opportunities reveal themselves during the process of finding out how newly discovered assets can be connected and leveraged to increase relationships and moving people to act.

Once you know what change your community seeks to make start mapping with folks who might already be working to create that change?  No special training is necessary, though there are many people who can help you get started.

Your early group of leaders will have to define your community, figure out who is available to do the work on the ground, and assess your initial resources to do the mapping. You can use any number of methods, either via surveys, or better yet through one to one conversations, or appreciative inquiry. Remember, lists of information are good, but stories are even better because they can reveal hidden social and cultural assets.

Useful Resources

More on ABCD to come

Finding Opportunities in Conflict

“What people often mean by getting rid of conflict is getting rid of diversity, and it is of utmost importance that these should not be considered the same. We may wish to abolish conflict, but we cannot get rid of diversity…Fear of difference is fear of life itself.”
– Mary Parker Follett

We experience conflict every day. Every time you make a decision you are to some degree, resolving conflict. For people organizing to create change, conflict sometimes needs to be resolved between allies, and of course, always needs to be addressed with adversaries.

Rather than survey the mountain of literature available on the topic of conflict resolution, let’s focus for now on two things. First, we’ll explore Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann’s, Five Modes for Handling Conflict, and think about how they might relate to leadership. Secondly, we’ll address the notion that conflict – this thing that we’d all just like to go away, actually has numerous benefits that can help to develop other areas of our capacity to lead.

Five Modes for Handling Conflict (Thomas-Kilmann)

conflict resolution
Chart source: An Overview of the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, http://www.kilmanndiagnostics.com/overview-thomas-kilmann-conflict-mode-instrument-tki

According to Thomas and Kilmann, our behavior in conflict situations focuses on two dimensions: 1) assertiveness (What’s in it for me and how do I get it?); and 2) cooperativeness (How can I satisfy others’ concerns?). Leadership means having to constantly balance these dimensions in order to move closer to your desired outcomes.

Competing – Everyone uses all five of these modes of conflict resolution. More often than not, however, competing gets the most attention. When you are trying to make specific changes in the world, a zero-sum orientation is often where you find yourself. A referendum passes or fails. A candidate wins or loses. The key for leaders is not to let this single-mindedness spill over into every interaction, because the next success might depend on collaboration with one of your winner-take-all victims.

Avoiding – dodging conflict for the sake of appearing neutral can have a similar outcome to any aversion to risk – no pain, no gain. Removing yourself from a situation could mean not benefitting from the gains resulting from the successful resolution of the conflict. Leaders should to at least some degree, embrace conflict rather than avoid it.

Accommodating – allowing an unchallenged “win” in an effort to not rock the boat is a situational judgment call. What is the return on the investment of this good will? One warning, accommodation is also where a lot of ethically questionable behavior resides – like spinning something to make yourself look good, and the other party feel good,( “let’s let them think that they’ve won this, meanwhile we’re sticking it to them over here”).

Compromising – This is what used to happen in politics. People agreed to something that was tolerable to all parties, and maintained some sort of reasonable working relationship. Granted, compromise usually ends up in only baby steps forward, but small steps ahead are better and no progress at all, or backwards movement.

Collaborating – This is the elusive “win-win” situation. The value in collaborating lies in capitalizing on diversity – diversity of ideas, of approach, of notions of success.

Conflict Can Have Benefits

Try to look at conflict beyond simply being something that you want to go away quickly. You might see that it has some benefits. Here are some of them:

  • Conflict checks our complacency and self-satisfaction simply by making us aware that problems exist.
  • Conflict reveals diverse perspectives, getting beyond an either/or worldview, challenging our assumptions and leading to more comprehensive solutions.
  • Conflict resolution requires you to tap into your creativity. You learn about yourself, and about others, leading to greater emotional intelligence.
  • The process of resolving conflict often opens up new communication avenues and processes. In fact, lack of communication is often the source of conflict.
  • Successful conflict resolution can build trust. When people feel heard, and when their opinions are recognized and validated, the fair treatment they received makes them more likely to come forward in the future, before conflicts have an opportunity to fester.

Emotional Intelligence

“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart”
– Helen Keller

Acting with others in an effort to change something, or create something is inescapably emotional. This is a good thing. Emotional connection motivates people. It feeds their passion for achieving a vision of something better. It isn’t our job as leaders to tell people how they should feel. Everyone’s unique life experience, relationships, and knowledge inform their emotional state. Navigating something this complex requires that we develop some degree of emotional intelligence.

“Emotional intelligence is the ability to monitor one’s own and other people’s emotions, to discriminate between different emotions and label them appropriately, and to use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior.”
– Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emotional_intelligence

The chart below is quite different from other tables we’ve explored. It is Robert Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions. The most intense emotions are in the inner circle. The next ring consists of Plutchik’s eight primary emotions—anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, anticipation, trust, and joy. These are the emotions that he says trigger actions that we use to survive, such as the fight-or-flight response.

Plutchik's Wheel of EmotionsImage: public domain http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Plutchik-wheel.svg

How is understanding this useful in leadership? Well, for example, if you look at the annoyance/anger/rage continuum, you probably know from experience that people are less likely to act on changing things that are simply annoying. It is also best if a problem has to get to the point of outrage before people act. Knowing when folks are angry enough to act to create change is important.

You don’t need an advanced degree in Psychology to develop emotional intelligence. There are some simple things you can do. The Internet is full of free help on this front, so I won’t go too in depth here. The most important things that you can do fall into two general categories: 1) becoming more self-aware; and 2) increasing your empathy.

Self-awareness requires articulating what you believe, why you believe it, as well as what you are thinking, and feeling. I’m not talking about being in a constant state of navel-gazing. It’s more a matter of taking a second during that time when you are thinking before you speak (You do that, right?), and asking yourself if you understand why you are saying what you are saying.

There are many other things that will improve your self-awareness. Daily writing is an easy one. It can be public or private, and doesn’t need to be lengthy. Try tweeting thoughts that are important to you, not just ones that you hope will be perceived as clever or funny.

If daily writing seems too burdensome, try writing a brief bio of yourself that contains no information from your resume. If you are looking for a less direct window into yourself to begin with, write about someone you admire, and explain why you admire them. It will tell you something about your own values.

Ask good friends, and family members how they perceive your character, attitude, and the general impression that you give . If they tell you things that surprise you, then you can take that opportunity to both further develop assets that they see in you, as well as work on negative aspects of their perception of you that they identified.

The most important path to developing empathy is to listen to people, REALLY listen to them. Believe what they tell you about how they are feeling. Don’t necessarily live by the so-called golden rule – ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ Consider this instead: “do unto others as others would have done unto themselves.”

As a leader, social responsibility is perhaps the greatest manifestation of emotional intelligence. It recognizes our interconnectedness, and our realization that, as Paul Wellstone put it, “we all do better when we all do better.”

Excellence Versus Perfection

“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.
– Leonard Cohen, Anthem

excellence vs perfectionTable based on a poster from http://thebluecollarsuccessgroup.com/

There is not a great deal of conflict or controversy around this comparison as it relates to leadership. Perfection exists as a concept, but not as a practical reality. Good leaders encourage people to strive for excellence, not perfection. If you always wait for perfection nothing will ever get done. As psychologist and author Harriet Braiker put it, “Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralizing.”

In terms of leadership, both of excellence and perfection find themselves under scrutiny in the context of achieving success. Success is usually measured by comparison to others. Our most visible manifestations of leadership are in campaigns — contests for the public’s hearts, or their imagination.

If in these challenges our competition is excellent, then we have to be more excellent — we need to be perfect, right? No.

In his 1989 book, The Heart of the Order, sports columnist  Thomas Boswell describes the difference between success and excellence this way:

“Success is tricky, perishable, and often outside our control; the pursuit of success makes a poor cornerstone, especially for a whole personality. Excellence is dependable, lasting and largely an issue within our own control; pursuit of excellence, in and of itself, is the best of foundations.”

If success is perishable, and perfection is unrealistic, then leaders in this “pursuit of excellence” are really part of an ongoing learning community, a network of people absorbing and acting on their shared knowledge and wisdom.

If we can agree that excellence is preferable over perfection, how can we make sure that excellence has substance? Look at the mission statements of nonprofit organizations, schools, and businesses. Apparently everybody is already excellent, because the claims of excellence are everywhere.

Maybe excellence is more of a constant reminder of betterment, of constant improvement, more than it is a state of being. Maybe the best way to achieve excellence is to maintain a modest intellectual curiosity, and an attitude that we want to learn something new every day of our lives.

Leaders Versus Managers

“You don’t manage people; you manage things. You lead people.”
-Admiral Grace Hopper

leader v mgrAdapted from a table at changingminds.org

This comparison is similar to the Entrepreneurs Versus Administrators relationship. One big difference is that entrepreneurship is usually associated with business or enterprise development. Of course, at the core of all of our explorations here is the idea of getting things done. Things do get done in organizations with rigid vertical organizational charts. Things also get done when passionate leaders build relationships and leverage diverse skills and
common values. A comparison of leaders and managers on the website diffen.com asks some questions that get to the heart of choosing an approach:

  • Does a manager have to be a great leader?
  • Does a leader need to have good management skills?

My response to both questions is, “not necessarily, but a little bit couldn’t hurt.” This is really a case of something not being questions of either/or, but rather times when both/and makes much more sense.

It’s like Grace Hooper said in the quote at the top of the page, people need leadership, but there are always details related to their work that require management. Even though these discussions center around leadership, business management guru Tom Peters is right when he said: “Stop being conned by the old mantra that says, ‘Leaders are cool, managers are dweebs.’ Instead, follow the Peters Principle: Leaders are cool. Managers are cool too!”

With this in mind, it seems critical for leaders to identify what aspects of the work that they are involved in require commitment to detailed control, and what aspects lend themselves to serving as a guide to help others navigate new terrain.

Narrowing The Gap Between Our Ideal And Our Real Values

“The whole idea of knowing who you are and what you stand for is so simple, yet also so profound and sophisticated. It’s difficult to pull off, but without it there’s no chance to institutionalize the vision and make it long-term and lasting.”
-Bob Boylan

Positive change usually happens after people have: 1) examined and understood their values; 2) articulated a shared vision after identifying their common values; and 3) strategically leveraged their own strengths toward achieving their common goals.

One big barrier to change is the fact that most people don’t spend a great deal of time analyzing their values. Your values are your principles, your personal standards of behavior. They tell people what you believe is important in life; and they indicate to others what you have in common at the deepest human level.

Examining your values is important because they become clear over time. They are not static; they change as you grow personally, establish relationships, and life experience. As you consider your values, it becomes apparent that some feel more personal than others. These might be called realized, or real values. The ones that seem like they have less to do with you personally are ideal values. They are things like freedom, democracy, and fairness.  You know that you should value them, and you don’t spend much time thinking that other people might have wildly different understanding of what they mean.

Despite these differing interpretations, ideal values are considered absolute. They are written into law. Real values help to resolve the contradictions between ideal values and people’s everyday behavior.

The Gap, the Contradictions, and the Conflicts

“The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty.”
-Abraham Lincoln

If you asked any 100 people in your community if any children in your town should be going to bed hungry, I would guess (and hope) that they would all express that having no undernourished children is a community value. If everyone shares that value, why are children going to bed without enough to eat? It probably isn’t a disagreement about the definition of hunger or malnutrition that is the barrier to coming up with the political will to do something to address the problem.

The gap between the ideal and real value isn’t simply the fault of individuals. Many people would act if they knew what actions they could take. This is where leadership comes in. Leaders can help individuals understand how their real values, things like justice, empathy, community, etc., can inform a strategy to solve the challenges of making sure that people have enough to eat.

Democracy is a commonly expressed ideal value. If we all believe in democracy, why is voter turnout not 100%? Is it just the IDEA of the ideal value that is important, or are people willing to act on their common values? The table below begins to illustrate why narrowing the gap is not an easy task. It shows how people might have opposing ideas about something perceived as an ideal.

The tables below are based on Frances Moore Lappe’s insightful book, Rediscovering America’s Values. In the book, Lappe explores the nuances of some ideal American values. Here are just a few of the competing ideas she presents relating to freedom.

freedom1freedom2freedom3Despite differing views on these values, how do we work to find common ground? What steps can people take to help narrow the gap between ideal and real values? Dr. Greg Waddell has some ideas that you look at in more detail here. He suggests four things in particular:

  1. Reward what you value.
  2. Measure what you value.
  3. Model what you value.
  4. Design life experiences of what you value.

Think about these four actions as they relate to a personal value. How do you consciously live your values? More on values to come.

Traditional Versus Collaborative Leadership

“Collaboration isn’t about being best friends, or even necessarily liking everyone you’re working with. It is about putting all and any baggage aside, bringing your best self to the table, and focusing on the common goal.”
-Meghan M. Biro

The table below was developed from the extensive work found on the  Collaborative Leadership website of the Leadership Development National Excellence Collaborative.

traditional vs collaborative leadershipCollaborative leadership is all about the intentional development of relationships that enables individual successes by stakeholders while accomplishing a collective outcome. As you look at the comparisons in the table it is clear that most of the world seems to reside in the rigid world of positional leadership described in the left column. There is, however, a lot more collaborative leadership going on out there (or at least headed in that direction) than you might think.

Living in the digital age makes collaborative leadership easier to accomplish, because the open sharing of information is at the heart of making it work. Micro meetings, quick polling, crowdsourcing, and other realities of a life immersed in portable, digital information make once idealistic ideas like self-governance, and broad participation possible.

Another key difference between traditional and collaborative leadership is that the latter is at its core, rooted in trust. When stakeholders voices are not only heard, but in fact, embraced for their valuable perspective; trust is cultivated, and shared time and effort result in productivity.

More to come, as this concept is closely tied to a number of the others discussed here.

Working Together: Coordinating, Cooperating, Or Collaborating

“I never did anything alone. Whatever was accomplished in this country was accomplished collectively.”
—Golda Meir

Source for the table below: COLLABORATION FOR A CHANGE (revised January 2002)
Definitions, Decision-making models, Roles, and Collaboration Process Guide
By Arthur T. Himmelman

CCC_HimmelmanWhen people talk about working together the subtext for everyone at the table, whether it is said aloud or not is usually: “what’s in it for me, and what’s it gonna cost?” Arthur Himmelman’s distinctions between these three concepts are important in that they illustrate how as relationships grow and deepen, critical aspects of working together, like trust and confidence, pave the way for shared risk and resources.

Moving from coordinating, to cooperating, to collaborating isn’t a seamless, smooth evolution. People who work together successfully spend plenty of time up front not only “getting on the same page,” but also honestly sharing their expectations and commitments with their potential partners.

Another important thing to remember is that every partnership doesn’t have to be, or strive to be a collaboration. Sometimes simple coordination can achieve a goal. When that is the case, that success can serve as an underpinning for a deeper partnership.

Quality Of Life Versus Standard of Living

“The quality of life is more important than life itself”
-Alexis Carrel

The terms quality of life, and standard of living, are often used interchangeably. Standard of living is for the most part, a measure of consumption. Money, however, cannot buy happiness. It can’t keep people from discriminating against you. It can’t make you as young as you used to be.

quality of life vs. standard of living

An article by Cornelia Butler Flora, published by the North Central Regional Center for Rural Development, cites a NCRCRD study “relating the objective measures with subjective measures of quality of life.” Among the the findings of that study:

1. Quality of life is not related—either positively or negatively—to standard of living.
2. Having choices in the productive work that you do is the most important dimension of quality of life.
3. The respect of family and people who matter to you in your communities of place and interest is the second key dimension of quality of life.

This is important to understand if you are trying to innovate some change in the world. Even though quality of life is subjective, and means different things to different people, there are many values and dreams that are shared among many individuals, and groups in a community. One of the important things that leaders can do is to work toward achieving satisfaction with quality of life throughout their organization or community. People make up their minds on issues based on how those issues impact their own quality of life.

This does not mean that standard of living indicators are not important. It just serves as a reminder that many, many of our desires transcend money and wealth.

I once worked with a leadership group in a small, scenic community that was staring the quality of life/standard of living question smack dab in the face. This small town had a resident who was proposing to build the nation’s largest tire incineration plant. He was selling the idea primarily on the idea of job creation. His claim was that burning the nation’s used tires would improve the local economy, improving the standard of living for low level wage earners.

Of course, the opposition to this plan came from citizens whose arguments were rooted in quality of life issues. Air quality, ecosystem destruction and aesthetics,eventually won the day, but not before the community experienced considerable divisiveness, trying to reconcile their common values.

There can be no community development without economic development; and there can be no economic development without talking about quality of life concerns.

Learning and Leadership: the Importance of Reflection

“We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.”
― John Dewey

Learning is critical to effective leadership. If we are lucky, we learn from our mistakes. We also need to understand why our successes worked, so that we can continuously improve on those aspects of our endeavors.

The table below is based on a great little blog post by educator and consultant Karl Kapp, titled: Two Opposite But Important Elements of Learning. It serves as a good reminder that neither interactivity, or reflection are sufficient on their own if the goal is deep learning. Information doesn’t become knowledge until we can connect it to something we already know.

learning

“Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action.”
-Peter Drucker

Leadership is a formative practice. A good leader is constantly reflecting on what she or he has just experienced, and tweaking the next approach or strategy. Reflection gives us an opportunity to question assumptions and stereotypes. It reveals our real values, and keeps us honest with ourselves.

Problem Solving Versus Appreciative Inquiry

“The only irreplaceable capital an organization possesses is the knowledge and ability of its people. The productivity of that capital depends on how effectively people share their competence with those who can use it.”
— Andrew Carnegie

The development of the practice of appreciative inquiry (AI) traces back to David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva in the late 1980s. They felt that problem solving was often limited by focusing only on what isn’t working, and not on further developing what was working well. (Visit the Appreciative Inquiry Commons at Case Western University). The book, A Positive Revolution in Change: Appreciative Inquiry by Cooperrider and Diana Whitney, puts it this way:

Appreciative Inquiry is about the coevolutionary search for the best in people, their organizations, and the relevant world around them. In its broadest focus, it involves systematic discovery of what gives “life” to a living system when it is most alive, most effective, and most constructively capable in economic, ecological, and human terms.

If you have had any introduction to AI, you have probably seen the table below. I have yet to track down the original source of the table. If anyone knows please post in the comments section.

problem solving vs AIYou might look at this table and say, “that’s just semantics – appreciative inquiry is solving problems, right?” The difference, however, lies in AI’s capacity-centered approach, and its deep belief in human potential. Yes, AI solves problems, but it is deliberately constructive in its focus on keeping those same problems from reoccurring.

I plan on posting a number of ideas related to Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD), an approach which uses approaches like AI to mobilize communities. More on AI when we explore the concepts of ABCD.

Groups Versus Networks

“A group is elemental, defined by mass and sameness . . . a network is diverse and changing, defined by interactions – like an ecosystem.”
– Stephen Downes

Leadership isn’t always about getting everyone “on the same page,” or speaking with one voice. Sometimes it’s most effective when we’re listening to diverse opinions and ideas, and taking advantage of the wisdom resulting from the diversity of the collective voices. Diversity is critically important, and the way to leverage its value is through networks.

You hear a lot about the importance of networking. The value of networks, however, do not simply lie in meeting or knowing increasing numbers of people.

The ideas here come from the work of the prolific and insightful Canadian educational theorist, Stephen Downes.

groups vs networksOrganizing as networks rather than groups also helps to cultivate shared leadership. The sharing that takes place in networks is an indicator of people finding and acting on, their shared interests and values.

In the sort of network that I’m talking about, every member can find a communication connection to every other member. The network is distributed, rather than centralized. Think of the way social media facilitates communication, as opposed to the way a monthly newsletter does.

A commitment to networks requires trust in the idea that people will make the right decisions if given a variety of options or scenarios from which to choose. A distributed network is also an effective way to identify emerging leaders. Distributed networks cultivate shared leadership.

(Note: For dozens of stories of how networks of creative, sharing people are changing the world, I’d recommend Clay Shirky’s insightful book: Cognitive Surplus.)

[post updated 9/22/2016]