Saturday, December 05, 2009

Leadership - backwards and in high heels

The U.S. News & World Report (November, 2009), through the advice of a blue-ribbon panel, identified individuals around the globe for leadership that makes a difference. Reading the stories of these individuals, why they do what they do, and how they’ve managed to stay the course in their efforts is truly inspirational. There are examples across all age groups, but I did notice a gratifying trend of “mature” individuals whose work remains vibrant, fulfilling, and active when their chronological age has moved beyond 60, 70, and even 80 years of age.

The selection of these people is a statement of how we are beginning to understand effective leadership in the 21st century. Bill and Kathy Magee (Operation Smile), Greg Mortenson (Pennies for Peace), Judith Rodin (Rockefeller Foundation), Eboo Patel (Interfaith Youth Core), Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch (bipartisan bridge-building) and others have made a difference and they’ve done it by reflecting the criteria set by leadership experts such as Warren Bennis, David Gergen, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, and Barbara Kellerman; 1) building a shared sense of purpose, 2) achieving a positive social impact, and 3) cultivating a culture of growth.

A complementary analysis of leadership that makes a difference is offered by Rondinelli and Hefron (2009) in their Leadership for development: What globalization demands of leadership fighting for change. Beginning with reflections on what leadership in a rapidly globalizing world might entail, connecting that with the concern for global development that began with Kennedy’s decade of development in the 1960s, and moving on to examples of change underway around the world, Rondinelli and Hefron take the U.S. News & World Report to another level; they take us to examples of leadership that are historically and culturally contextualized and that represent perhaps our only hope in a world that is so dominated by political, religious, economic and other forms of warfare. Kennedy (1963, Commencement address at American University) introduced the possibility of world peace that would not be “… a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war … but peace for all men and women” (p. 51) that would begin by looking inward and by directing attention to common interests that would connect rather than divide humanity across the globe.

The Rondinelli and Hefron book provides amazing examples of change, some of which led to positive transformation and others to more challenges to be addressed. Consistent among them all is that transformative leaders deal with the practically reality of their environment, they mobilize others, and they demonstrate self-motivation, credibility, care, humility, and courage in their actions. What I most appreciated about this very realistic analysis was a wonderful metaphor that captures the work of those stimulating change in the developing world – “backwards and in high heels.”

The chapter by Ian Smillie of this same name, “Backwards and in high heels,” used the example of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, the famous dancing duo of mid-20th century movies. Astaire was applauded for his amazing skill and artistry but the fact was, he was always in the lead. In traditional dance, the man is the one who sets the standard while the female, Ginger Rogers, had to mirror the lead while dancing backwards and in high heels. That’s what it’s like in the developing world. The Western world may be able to offer help, advice, and resources, but the infrastructures, processes, shared values, and many other things are simply not there to allow the transfer of Western views into the new, developing, and globalizing settings. Everyone pursuing change outside of the Western environment is dancing backwards in high heels and the more emergent the infrastructure, the higher the heels and the more indefinite the lead. This is not easy work and those Westerners seeking to help, partnering with those actively involved in the change, will do well to consider how the rules of dance might need to be modified.

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