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Everyday and Everywhere Lessons from "Everyone Leads"

A woman giving a presentation to a group of people in an office.

Today's post is Kari Mirkin's review of the book Everyone Leads: Building Leadership from the Community Up by Paul Schmitz. 

Why another leadership book? According to Paul Schmitz, former Public Allies CEO, when the nonprofit sector focuses so much on building effective organizations and not enough on building effective communities, vital voices, potential leaders, and possible solutions are left out, leaving us with unsustainable quick fixes to still intractable problems. We need to look at why we’re failing our communities, and we need to do it soon, as technological shifts and demographic upheavals threaten to isolate us from each other even more.

Most of Schmitz’s book, Everyone Leads: Building Leadership from the Community Up, focuses on his experience working at Public Allies and its values-based model of leadership development. From this seemingly local lens he proposes a shift that’s global in scale: redefining leadership. For Schmitz and Public Allies, leadership isn’t a position you should try to attain, it’s an action, something you --or anyone-- should do.

The book starts with a look at Public Allies, its beginnings, and its approach to developing social sector leaders. Founded in 1992, Public Allies' mission is to advance new leadership to strengthen communities, nonprofits and civic participation. It accomplishes its mission in cities across the country through a leadership training program that places diverse groups of young adults in nonprofit apprenticeships. The participants’ work with fellow Allies, with the Public Allies staff, and with their placement organizations, is centered on five core values.:

  • Focus on assets
  • Diversity and inclusion
  • Collaboration
  • Continuous learning
  • Integrity

Schmitz launched the Public Allies’ office in Milwaukee before taking the helm of the national organization in 2000. He describes his own journey to discovering that everyone leads and finds support for his theory in several well-known and often-cited works of leadership development theory and literature in the first few chapters of the book. He then turns to an in-depth look at each of the five Public Allies core values and suggests how they can be adopted by leaders everywhere.

Though most of the book’s lessons center on the social sector, those working in government and private industry should embrace the five core values, too. “You will lead effectively in any environment,” Schmitz writes, “if you recognize and mobilize assets, if you cross cultural boundaries and bring diverse people and groups together, if you build teams and facilitate community collaboration, if you seek feedback, coaching, and support to learn and grow, and if you hold yourself accountable to your own values and to others.”

Below, for each of those core values, is one key concept from Everyone Leads that you can put to work in your own community:

1. A Focus on Assets

Though the concept of asset-based community development -- that you should place citizens and all they have to offer at the center of community building-- is not brand new, Schmitz’s spin on the idea, that everyone is both “half-empty” and “half-full” informs a strategy that can be applied to any relationship, and it’s something you can start doing right away by using a slightly different lens to view co-workers, clients, and yourself. By first recognizing that we all have both strengths and shortcomings, including the people we serve, we can more effectively find sustainable, empowering solutions to societal problems, ones that build on our assets. This approach chips away at the us vs. them attitude that crops up when nonprofits or governments enter a neighborhood without engaging that community in identifying issues. In that scenario, once an institution “fixes” a problem, it often comes back, as the community itself was never consulted in building a holistic approach.

2. Diversity and Inclusion

As our communities become more and more diverse, we have to be mindfully inclusive in creating the leaders of the future. One exercise detailed in the book that may be useful in helping you and your colleagues recognize the extent to which systems of power and oppression inform our perspective is the Privilege Walk, in which a group of people begin standing side by side and, after answering “yes” or “no” to a series of questions about how they relate to the world, find themselves standing far apart, divided by the variety of their experiences. With just this one small act of understanding and looking how perspectives start to diverge, we can see both the importance of making sure each perspective is represented in the community-building process and the danger of leaving anyone out.

3. Collaboration

The half-empty/half-full concept is applied here, too, as Schmitz explains how to mesh different leadership styles in achieving outcomes. Another exercise, the Leadership Compass, can help group members learn to collaborate by calling out diverse personalities. Compass participants are asked to identify with one of the following four leadership types before explaining how they can better work with the individuals standing at the other three points on the compass: Visionaries, Analysts, Mobilizers, and Nurturers. The goal of understanding your team’s compass is “not dominance of any one style, but balance that produces results.” You can collaborate more effectively if you sense how each collaborator sees an issue.

4. Continuous Learning

In conveying the importance of continuous learning and personal improvement to Public Allies, the staff draws a distinction between simply teaching someone and truly helping someone learn, a distinction other nonprofits should apply in developing their own leaders. Schmitz rightly argues that by training employees only for the specific tasks for which they were hired instead of creating an environment of continuous learning, goal-setting, and honest feedback, we shortchange not only our organizations, but ultimately the communities we serve, too: “as we build our organizations, it’s good to clarify our shortcomings because they aren’t secrets to anyone else, and admitting this makes it easier to ask for help.” Being able to ask for help when it’s needed is another hallmark of effective leadership.

5. Integrity

Finally, Everyone Leads calls on the social sector and its workers to realign themselves with their communities and their own personal, leadership compasses. In other words, avoiding the “mission drift” that tends to happen when organizations focus too much on finding their next funding sources. He describes “a sad silence as the nonprofit community stays out of battles that address anything beyond their direct funding,” and reminds us where our true accountability lies: with the people we serve. While easier said than done, the hope is that as more leaders rediscover their duty to bravely advocate for the people they serve, with less attention to financial fallout, they’ll be better equipped to balance multiple interests.

Schmitz illustrates how each of the core values builds on and reinforces the other, and time and again hints at one more element underpinning each of them: self-awareness. Through self-awareness, we can admit that we don’t know everything and acknowledge that our leadership teams lack diversity or fail to reflect the assets of the community. We can identify areas in which we need to learn and grow, and we can hold ourselves accountable when we’ve gone off course and sidestepped our own values.

Everyone Leads offers a deceptively simple theory of leadership, that it is an action to be shared rather than a position to covet, and compels the reader to question the meaning of community in an increasingly interconnected and diverse world. Fortunately, though supposedly just telling the story of one organization, Public Allies, and its select group of young leaders, the book really does offers a roadmap for citizens of any age and in any sector to carve a path of true leadership.

By Kari Mirkin


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