She leads, we follow
Q: With Laura Bush in the news with her new memoir and Michelle Obama pushing her plan to fight childhood obesity, what advice would you offer to those who find themselves in such ambiguously defined leadership roles? Can a First Lady be a leader in her own right?
Real change is never a one-person show. Real change happens when the work of formal leaders--leaders in the center--is complemented by the work of leaders on the margin.
In any significant movement for change, whether in business, politics, or larger society, the person who holds the mantle of leadership can only accomplish so much on his or her own. For example, when Dorothy Height died last month, I was reminded how her leadership shaped the direction of the Civil Rights movement, even though she did not have the widespread name recognition of Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks or Julian Bond. We properly celebrate the accomplishments of high profile positional leaders, but we are less adept at understanding the leadership that happens in the background.
What can we learn about great leaders on the margin, leaders like the most influential First Ladies? First, they are smart, skillful and savvy. Leading from the margin means having a clear vision of what happens in the mainstream. People on the margin observe and reflect, often having fewer options to act because they have less access to tangible resources. But when they do get the chance to make a difference, they put what they have learned into action.
Second, they lead through referent power--power derived from integrity, admiration and respect--rather than formal power bestowed on them by their position. A slightly oversimplified example: President Obama is the Commander-in-Chief, and when he issues an order, it must be obeyed because he is the boss. First lady Obama may not get things done only because she orders it (though I'm sure she has some juice). She likely also gets things done because she garners a high degree of respect and esteem. That's what referent power is all about.
And by the way, referent power is an almost bottomless well of power. As long as a leader exhibits integrity and skill, people will follow her or him anywhere. Once that integrity is damaged, the power base disintegrates. As a corollary, leaders from the margin influence and leverage networks of critically important players who help them achieve their objectives.
Finally, leaders from the margin can see the world in a way that most people do not and that often makes them especially innovative. They are not as restricted in their thinking by conventional rules and norms. They can focus their energies on critical issues that are often overlooked or undervalued by the majority in the center. Their unique perspective is honed by lots of experience studying the dominant leaders and decision-makers and capitalizing on their blind spots. This makes leaders from the margin among the most valuable catalysts for real change in any organization or society.
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