Intro to the Groler Podcast - (Ep 1)

Why you should continue to learn and grow as a leader

By David Worley - February 13, 2019

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Show Notes

02:28 Leadership is not the same in all places and at all times.

04:41 Leadership matters.

05:49 The difference between things going well and poorly is often leadership.

06:02 Leadership is not a solo act, it's a team sport.

07:23 Leadership boils back to three elements: leader-followers-context.

09:33 Context is essential for leadership.

12:57 Example of context changing from one domain to another.

14:45 Subtle, non-traditional forms of leadership.

19:52 What is the Groler Podcast attempting to accomplish?

20:43 Are leaders born or developed?

22:30 You can always improve your leadership skills.

23:10 The most significant issues facing 21st-century organizational leadership.

23:27 How do we build distributed leadership structures?

26:38 The value of mindfulness in leadership.


00:00          Hi Everyone, I'm David Worley. Welcome to the first episode of the podcast. This week I lay out why it's important to learn and grow as a leader.

00:27          Thanks for joining me. I'm David Worley and I have founded this Groler podcast to help you learn and grow as a leader. There seems to be no shortage of advice regarding leadership, it's a topic that kind of surrounds you all the time. Whether you're at the airport bookstore or if you go to a conference, it seems like one of the common topics to engage is leadership. So "why another podcast on leadership?" Well, my answer to that is that in order to be an effective leader you have to continue to learn and grow and I feel like one of the missing elements of most people's leadership diet [are] interesting thoughts that are relevant and practical for leadership, but that are coming from a little bit higher brow theoretical perspective. So what I'm seeking to get at in the Groler podcast is this merger of really advanced ideas with practical leadership skills.

01:32          And so as I was doing research for this project, research to attempt to try to figure out exactly what the contribution could be for this particular show, I came about this kind of split. So on one hand when you talk with people in leadership, most people will go straight to the practical pragmatic skills of leadership. And these are undoubtedly really important. Things like how to build a team, how to do a performance review, how to engage your team members and clients or target audience. And undoubtedly that pragmatic, practical approach is critical. But, but what's interesting to me is that underlying that set of concerns is sort of the assumption that leadership is the same in all places for all people at all times. There is this assumption that leadership is a static set of skills. And I think that's wrong. And I think most people who have practiced a higher level leadership over a long period of time begin to realize that leadership is totally contextual to the situation that you find yourself in. And so this podcast is really devoted to bring you new ideas and new theories that may help you think differently about the situations that you're facing.

03:21          So a word about me, as I said, I'm David Worley. I'm 43 years old. I currently live in Denver, Colorado. I have always been interested in the subject of leadership from the time I was really little. I mean, I can actually remember thinking about leadership as early as kindergarten age. I don't know that I would have articulated it that way, but, I think I've always been palpably aware of a room and a group of people trying to do something. And so that's just something that I kind of think I came out of the womb being interested in. I'm a teacher. By that I don't mean a K-12 teacher or even a university professor. I work in higher education. That's been my context over the last 14 years, professionally, and 12 of those years I've worked as an executive leader at a graduate school here in Denver. And so for me, as I look at the world, I see again and again examples of really great leadership and examples of poor leadership. And I think that fundamentally one of sort of my stakes in the ground, or assertions about the world, is that I think leadership matters. For some listeners you're going to be like, yeah, "duh" of course leadership matters. But believe it or not, this is a somewhat controversial topic in organizational studies and in management studies. The question of whether or not leaders make a difference is an open question for academics.

05:03          And, and I don't mean to say that in a negative or pejorative sense as in like, oh, the academics are off studying questions that nobody cares about. No, I think this is really an important question and a valuable area of research for a management, leadership, and organizational scholars to engage. And that is "do leaders make a difference?" And if so, "how?" And "in what context and in what way?" And so just to kind of skip past that, you're probably never going to hear an episode, although who knows what we may throw an episode in along this direction, but you're probably not going to hear an episode with me talking about whether or not leadership matters. I think it does. From my own experience in life. It seems to me that the difference between things going really well and oftentimes really poorly is leadership.

06:01          Now, here's the thing. Leadership is not a solo act. It's not one person at the top of the hierarchy leading. Leadership occurs all throughout organizations at every single level. It happens in your normal business, it happens in your normal nonprofit or governmental organization, it happens in schools. It happens on the elementary school playground and in the old folks retirement home. Leadership is everywhere because wherever there are groups of people, you will find the act of leaders leading. We're going to talk a little bit about that more. I'll just go straight straight there now.

06:45          So, here's my question for you. If I say to you, "what is leadership" what would you say? You know, if I were to to be sitting next to you on an airplane and we're talking and we get to the topic of leadership. If I said "Jane Doe, what is leadership?" What would you say? Think about that for a second.

07:09          For me, where I come out on that is that leadership is a lot of things, but if we're going to just talk kind of mechanically and technically to begin, let's get the ingredients or the components, right? So I think that that leadership boils down to three different elements. Until you think about each one, you don't even have the beginnings of the most basic understanding, most basic kind of theory or practice of leadership. And that is there is a (1) leader or a group of leaders. That's component one. (2) A set of followers. That's component two. And (3) a given context or contexts. So there are those three components. If any one of those is missing you have an incomplete view of even the starting point of leadership. And so the interesting thing is [this is] not surprising in almost all the literature that you will read, in almost all of the talks you'll hear, the focus of leadership tends to be on leaders often at the expense of thinking about followers and contexts.

08:26          And you'll be heartened to know that in the last decade or two, scholars have begun to really engage this question of followership and the elements of what makes for good, effective followers. What makes for constructive dissent of leadership. Like, like how do you disagree with the leader? What's the role of followers in bringing about organizational change or an initiative itself? And so there will be some episodes that we will definitely devote to followers themselves. But you'll note that for many of you, particularly if you've stayed in reading, sort of like pop level airport bookstore type leadership books, it's entirely possible, if not likely, that you have never actually read anything about followership or about followers. It's just a missing piece that's not on our radar screen.

09:33          The other thing that tends to not be on the radar screen but has, in my opinion in the last decade or two, begun to come up is context. That the context in which you're leading is really fundamental to what you do and how effective you are.

09:52          One of the things that kind of drives me nuts is when I hear, and I hope to not step on toes with this comment but I don't know another way of saying it. You know, I'll be at like a conference or something and the conference is for nonprofit leaders and they'll bring a leadership guru to come and talk. And lo and behold, it will be three star general Gerald Smith. (And if there is a three star general named Gerald Smith, I'm sorry, I'm just making this up.) But you know, it'll be three star general Gerald Smith who served, you know, 32 years in the US army and you know, did all this impressive stuff. And Gerald will be talking with the audience about the need for decisiveness and leadership. And oftentimes I have several thoughts sitting there. Number one is I think, hey, thank you Gerald for your service to the world and to our country. Thank you. Number two, I have no doubt that Gerald, you are super effective and have been effective in [the] military, and in different elements therein. But I wonder how aware you are, Gerald, of the difference in context between where you have practiced leadership and where your audience practices leadership. So let's break that down for a second.

11:14          In a military, you have probably the clearest hierarchy of any set of organizations in the contemporary world. You have clear rank, you have a clear decision making, you have clear chain of command. So much so that if we were to get into a situation in which rules and orders were not followed, you could be legally brought up on charges, court martialed. Okay, that's one side. Now go over here to your average nonprofit. Your average nonprofit is usually struggling financially and heavily reliant on volunteers. So not only do you not have the ability to court martial, oftentimes your volunteers are also your donors. So in a weird sort of a way, a nonprofit leader is simultaneously attempting to lead the people that she works for, who are the donors really, and has to motivate volunteers with really no structural leverage. Meaning positional authority or very little leverage in terms of a paycheck. Certainly, you know, can't bring you up on charges. So that's a very, very different organizational context from the military. Now, notice what I didn't say in this. I didn't say that military leaders have it easier. In certain ways leading the military might be incredibly more complicated and difficult than leading a nonprofit. For one, in certain cases, you know, your decisions can literally get people killed. But what my point is that context matters. It matters deeply and it changes from one domain to another.

13:08          Not only that, a context changes as the day goes on as we shift topics or domains. A good example is, let's say you're a business leader and you're having your team meeting and in that team meeting, you know, you're the key leader running the meeting, with a clear sense that you get to arbitrate final decisions. Okay, great. Now the meeting ends and it's 5:00 and your team is really well bonded and they're like, hey, let's go to dinner. And Sam, the most gregarious and extroverted member of the group who just loves pulling together social [events], he's like, "hey, let's all go to, you know, to Ketos Taco bar." And you know, "you ride with so and so. Hey, I'll take this person. We will be there. I'll go get a table for 6:00. And by the way let's play. Let's play that game a board game that we, that we tried to play back at the retreat but we didn't have time." Okay? Boom, right there. Who's the leader in that situation? The leader is Sam. The context is the exact same group of followers, (I'm sorry) you have the exact same set of followers, but a completely different context. And so my point in saying this is that that even in a given room on a given fly on a given arc of your day, the context of leadership changes dramatically and it's subtle.

14:45          Sometimes you have multiple leaders in a room. Sometimes you have people who on the surface, no one would think is the leader, but they really are. A great example of this is years ago I heard someone talk about ministerial leadership in churches and most experienced ministers know that when they become the pastor of a new church, or a new faith community, there are sort of like the seminal patriarch or matriarch of the organization that ultimately in some sort of subtle way signs off on the yes or no. And you know, a lot of times those people hold no real position. They might be on the board or they might, you know, be present at meetings, but they're the person that everybody looks to for, for affirmation of an idea. Okay, now that's a very, very subtle form of leadership, but it's powerful. And, and this is true not just for groups like churches, it can be true for a family held business, or it can be true for an organization with a really longstanding or charismatic founder or key leader who is still around. So in that context there's the leader who is the person on paper who is in charge, and then there's the leader who's actually the defacto relational authority in the room.

16:19          And so I lay this all out to talk about this in terms that leadership is not simple. It's not a set of tasks that if you just master these tasks you will be effective. It's complicated, it's messy, it's sometimes bloody. And that's what makes it to me, such a fascinating topic. On top of that, the cherry on top, is that it's a topic that I think desperately matters for the world. And so it's a topic that all of us should be thinking about.

16:56          So let me dial back to talk about the podcast just really briefly to tell you what I'm after here. I want to bring you ideas and practices that help you in leadership. And when I say leadership in this podcast, I am typically meaning organizational leadership. Sure, if you're a political leader listening to this, there might be some, some value here. There's certainly lots of great social change agents out there doing great work and perhaps some of the things we talk about will matter or be useful for them. But I think the skills and capacities needed to lead a social movement are a little different than the skills needed to lead, say an organization with an annual budget of ten million dollars a year. Well we'll get into that in a different topic, but there are different kinds of leaders. Here I'm talking about organizational leaders.

17:55          The second thing is, is if you know me at all, if you're listening to this podcast and you're a friend of mine where you've known me or met me, I think you know that I really like to get to the point. I struggle to just, put my cards on the table, the genre that is podcasting for me is a little challenging because I've listened to a lot of podcasts that I think are a little bit indulgent. They go on and on and on. And often, they don't have a point and that's great, I guess if the purpose of that podcast is to, you know, kind of have a vibe of we're sitting with friends and we're having some drinks and we're chatting sort of like a morning drive time talk show. Then maybe that's fine, but that's not my style. My style is, I hope, to really get at attempting to provide you something useful and hopefully multiple things that are useful in every single episode. And I hope to keep every episode under 30 minutes.

18:55          Now, the format of the Groler podcasts, at least the way I envision it from this very first episode, is it's going to be primarily an interview based podcast. And by that I'm going to go try to find people who are all over the spectrum of leadership. Many of these people you will have never have heard of. Many of these people are coming from contexts that are not your own. But I've selected them or they have been presented to me, because they have something unique to say that helps us all.

19:27          And so as a little aside, if you become a listener of this podcast and you really like it, go to the Groler website, g r o l e r dot com, contact me and say, "hey, I have someone that should be on the show." And tell me about them. I'm kind of an equal opportunity interviewer to the degree that if I can talk with someone and feel like, "yeah, that's a really useful insight or useful perspective they have then I want to bring them on the show." And so it'll be interview format with an eye towards talking about often complicated issues, but bringing it back to what is practically important for your organizational leadership. So that's what I'm after in this show. That's what I'm after with really the project that is itself.

20:17          So let me close with interviewing myself with three brief question and answers as kind of the take home for this episode. Hopefully you got something from my open around context and leadership, but let me answer the three questions that I often get related to leadership, but I'm going to do so kind of in rapid fire succession.

20:42          So first is are leaders born or developed? Good question. It's, one of the first ones that will pop up in any group that you get into. Any discussion you get into talking about leadership, are leaders born or developed? My answer is both. Leaders are both born and developed. Now as kind of a dad joke kind of a thing. All leaders are born and all leaders die biologically. But you know, what people are asking is do people come out of the womb with indelible traits that make them leaders? And you know, it's interesting because I hear people kind of debate this a little bit left and right. And I think sometimes in an attempt to say no to that. That everybody has the capacity to be a leader, which is true. Everybody has the capacity to be a leader. I agree with that. That sometimes we might understate that I do think that people come out of the womb with different capacities to be leaders. I think of the traits that tend to be useful in leadership as, being a lot like physical traits. You know, some of us are born with more or less capacity to be successful at a certain sport or a game. You know, I'm not overly gifted in sports or games, but you know, certain people just come out of the womb and they are, you know, they're big, tall, strong, fast, and they're perfect to play this sort of sport.

22:14          Now that person could squander that ability or you could have someone who's sort of an inferior athlete who works really hard and we can all think of tons of examples of this who succeed really effectively at that sport. I think that metaphor is a really good one for leadership. You can always improve your skills. And my theory is that different people have different capacities, but everybody can improve. We can get into that question more as we talk about traits of leadership.

22:46          The second question I've already answered in my open about what is leadership? And so got that one nailed. As I thought about the three questions, in this podcast, there's always more to say about leaders, followers, and contexts, but I don't have anything more to say for you right now.

23:04          The third question is what I'm often asked by colleagues, and that is what is the biggest question for you that is lingering about 21st century leadership? We live in an interesting age with interesting challenges. You know, I'm often asked that. And I have two answers for that. One is more theoretical and one is practical.

23:27          So my theoretical question is how do we build leadership configurations that are more inclusive, more effective, and more satisfying for a larger number of people? I think that the old hierarchical, here's the leader, here's the followers, do what the leader says and everything is fine. I think that day is gone. And I think distributed leadership versus hierarchical leadership is this critical question for all sorts of organizations. But here's the thing, folks. As much as people love to talk about, hey, how do we have kind of a flat organization? How do we have a more democratic process for leadership? The problem is that it's hard to find examples of organizations that are anything other than hierarchical that, are large, and complex, and effective over a long period of time. It's just difficult to find those examples. And there's a reason for that.

24:38          There's something ingrained in leadership that we don't fully understand. And so, you know, I don't have a long academic publishing record, but this was, this was a topic that I took on following up with one of the great leadership scholars alive today. Keith Grint, in the UK, wrote an article about the sacred in leadership. How the concept of the sacred is critical for leadership to function. In his article, he says "it's not the elephant in the room of leadership. It is the room itself." And so we can talk more about that topic of the sacred later on. But for me, I think Dr. Grint has a really, really important point there and that's why I came behind that and last year published in a peer reviewed academic article, expanding on that using a sociological perspective of the sacred, which I think begins to move the ball down the field around getting at that key question that Grint pointed out. And as a little aside, Keith Grint will be on the show or you're going to get the chance to hear one of the great leadership scholars in the world talk about a variety of different things.

25:57          But that's a big question for me. How do we build distributed structures and not just like, hey "rah, rah," let's have a more democratic inclusive nature. How do we make these organizations work well? How do we get them to thrive and be sustainable? Because, to shoot straight with you all, you know, oftentimes the democratic settings and distributed settings in which there is not clear [hierarchical] leadership, oftentimes those situations underperform in terms of what it is that you're attempting to bring about.

26:29          The practical point, you know, I said that I have a theoretical answer to what are the issues that I think are facing the 21st century. The practical point is mindfulness. I think mindfulness is an untapped treasure for leadership. I think we can talk about traits until we're blue in the face. We can talk about things even like character, "like we need more character in leadership." I think those are largely dead ends, which I'll talk about in future episodes, not because they don't matter, but because there's no way to define them or to determine exactly what's happening there. I think we often look at people's character in retrospect and say, "oh, that person had great character or that person was a miserable, unethical person." So the question for me is things like character and goodness, for lack of a better term, of a leader or a person, those aren't very effective ways to predict what's going to happen or helpful for people in terms of improving their leadership capacity. But I think the topic of mindfulness is potentially really, really valuable to create better leadership outcomes. And better leadership experiences for both leaders and followers. So in a future episode I will attempt to tackle that as well. That's one of the things that I'm currently working on academically is doing some thinking and writing about that.

28:00          So anyway, there we have it. I probably lingered on a lot longer than I intended to. I apologize, if this was too long for you, but hopefully there's some good stuff in here as the very first Groler podcast we're off and running here.

28:18          If you enjoyed this episode, please visit us at the Groler website. That's G R O L E R dot com. There you'll find a full transcript of this [episode], show notes, and a few other goodies that you may enjoy. You may also want to consider subscribing to the podcast. You can do so through the itunes store. Like I said earlier, feel free to reach out to us via the website and ask any further questions or suggests a show topic for someone that I should interview. Finally, Groler exists to help you continue to learn and grow as a leader. So keep learning, keep growing, keep leading. Until next time, I'm David Worley.
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