Leadership always operates at two levels.
There is the immediate and perhaps even pragmatic stuff of leadership – who is in charge, what responsibilities do they own, what defines the shape of their arena. We spend a lot of time paying attention to this stuff, in all domains – work, economies, and especially now during election season when it seems like every commentator is asking “who will lead this country”. This level of leadership is the stuff we can see by the outline, or shape of the thing itself.
Then there is the second level – the arena of ideas. I know I’ve said it before, but it is worth repeating: ideas are fuel. For people and for organizations. Great ideas are like rocket fuel. They can create movement and velocity, and get you to go the distance.
One could argue it is “easy” to see the arena of ideas. But look at your own organization or project or team, can you say it’s clear? What ideas are you really fighting for…and how?
We do not have fair battles of ideas because we rarely define and share them well. In most enterprises (and let’s leave political debates out of the scope for a minute) we rarely get definitive enough to say, “he believes X”, and “she believes Y”. And, therefore, any battles over ideas are fuzzy ones. We deny power to ideas based on who is allowed to contribute. We diminish how big they get because of our inability to collaborate. We rarely know how to let ideas germinate and develop within organizations, so they can create a new marketplace reality. We stop talking mission and start talking about any topical business issue at hand… And all of this … this is a tragedy.
There could be plenty of excuses for this tragedy – most ideas are in motion and therefore hard to pin down, or that there isn’t time to get crisp because another battle – the battle for the market rages on… and so on. But these are simply excuses. These are the ways we tell ourselves so we don’t have to be as big as we can each be.
Just as a jellyfish pushes water through its system to create momentum, innovators shape ideas to do the same. We obsess about the first part of leadership as if that single axis is the one that matters. But it’s just the visible one. It is necessary but not sufficient to actually lead. It is our ability to create momentum, that is what creates everything.
The more complex the world is, the more we need to know and evaluate better ideas. The more complex our problems we’re working on, the more we need to get better at building an arena for ideas to compete. As innovators and change agents, each of us is a leader of ideas. This is not something someone else assigns or grants; it is the inherent power each of us already have. Of course, it means we still have to do the work, to apply perspectives, to develop skills and gifts, and to do the work. I’m not suggesting everyone will lead, but that everyone can. The first step of which is to know our own ideas, and then to know how to engage others in the arena of ideas.
In January, I did a blog post about why I write and curate this conversation, which took the form of “this I believe”. Through that process, I got clear about the set of ideas that would inform this work, and it has shaped most of what I’ve pursued here at Yes & Know for the last 11 months. It was through that process that I got clear of the ideas that mattered…first, for me, and then with you. I share that example because that may just be an idea for how to capture what ideas matter to you.
So I ask you, what set of ideas are you leading?