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Lessons from Grassroots Leadership

by jcp

By Victoria Pelletier, Senior Executive | Keynote Speaker | Author | Board Director

I’ve often wondered what the world would look like if those who sought high office were the best leaders among us, not the ones with the biggest campaign war chests. For a few moments, join me in this thought experiment. If given the chance, could the charismatic business owner who’s turned their company around from a has-been brand to a regional juggernaut revive the US auto industry? Could the firebrand leading community redevelopment in an intercity neighbourhood persuade a floundering nation that its best days are ahead of it? What about the courageous mom who’s stood between her child and an abuser? Could she stare down the territory and war-hungry leaders, convincing them that it was time to return to their caves? In my 20+ years of leadership in the corporate space, I’ve discovered that the strongest leaders are not always the ones that end up out in front of the cameras or behind palatial desks at the highest levels of government. The strongest leaders, often emerging from grassroots settings, demonstrate impeccable courage, initiative, and accountability.

Courage is a Verb

Maya Angelou once told a group of Cornell students, “Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.”[1] I love this way of thinking. Without the courage to translate one’s vision to action, one is not actually leading. Courage is the bedrock of effective leadership.

In my public speaking settings, I’ve reminded audiences that courage in the leadership environment is a verb. One does not earn the courage label by merely “talking a good game.” Courage is dynamic, transformative, and wonderfully contagious. For leaders, practicing moral courage is especially important. Exercising moral courage implies that one is prepared to uphold their values even when outside pressures function as a counterweight to those values. Moral courage means “practicing what you preach” even when no one is looking. In other words, those who demonstrate courage build trust with stakeholders. If those being lead know that the one providing leadership leads in a consistent way and will not bend when the challenge level is high, they will follow. Eventually, those who see courageous leadership will begin to exercise their own boldness when confronting demanding settings. I believe the most rewarding moments in leadership arise when those receiving leadership make the positive traits of the leader their own. In my own work, I want to be the kind of leader that my team looks up to, the kind of leader who demonstrates that the most demanding path is often the most prudent one. Courage is contagious.

Intuitive Initiative

Dr. Bo Bennet, a noted psychologist and writer, believes that initiative is the most valuable currency in an organization. Inasmuch, Bennet asserts that, “without initiative, leaders are simply workers in leadership positions.”[2] Bennet is right on target. Amid the daily rhythm of organizations, sparks of initiative keep stagnation, indifference, and trouble at bay. Leaders must have the ability to “read the tea leaves” and then enact a plan of action even if the available information does not provide a full picture of what’s ahead. Initiative keeps organizations on the leading edge of their respective industries. Initiative anticipates trouble and does something before the challenge is knocking on the door.

Eventually, initiative must become intuitive. Over time, leaders should reach the place wherein gut instinct trumps data collection. Why? Many decisions simply cannot wait on all the supporting evidence. Intuition is often born of experience. After leaders weather some external storms and put out a few internal fires, they begin to recognize trends and potentialities without the assistance of data points and other information. When intuitive initiative becomes a part of the leader’s toolbox, truly inspiring decision making is possible.

Assertive Accountability

Leaders must lead. While the intent of these three words may seem obvious enough, I assure you many “leaders” think they can be everyone’s best friend and still make the tough personnel decisions when the situations arise. Those without a backbone or fortitude need to step away from the proverbial corner office.

Accountability always begins with the leader. When an organization stumbles, there’s been a leadership failure. When the office environment becomes toxic, there’s been a leadership failure. When vision and goals remain unrealized, yes, that’s a leadership failure too. Before any leader can hold members of the team accountable for what did or did not happen, they must look in the mirror and discern where leadership faltered first. Those being led must see this from the one called to lead them.

Once a leader holds themself accountable, they must also look downstream and exercise accountability among members of the team missing the mark. This assertive accountability can be uncomfortable and at times excruciatingly painful. Just remember, the organization’s mission remains much more important than bruised egos.

Grassroots Leadership

I find that some of the most transformational leaders arrive with limited credentials or decades of corporate experience. What often distinguishes their leadership acumen and potential from the rest of the crowd are the experiences that forged the leadership in the first place. My own story – I’ll save that for another time – demonstrates that those who come of age in some of the most hellish contexts in life develop leadership skills out of necessity. So yes, the business owner, community developer, and tough-nosed mom know how to lead. If you want to join them, then revisit and refine your understandings of courage, initiative, and accountability.

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[1] Extracted from: https://news.cornell.edu/stories/2008/05/courage-most-important-virtue-maya-angelou-tells-seniors

[2] Extracted from: https://theecell.in/initiatives/