One of the unique aspects of Roberts Wesleyan College’s Master of Science in Strategic Leadership (MSL) program is its emphasis on equipping individuals for leadership effectiveness wherever they may serve. This approach to leadership development builds on the work of Robert Greenleaf (1996), Steven Covey (1991), John Maxwell (1998) and others, who have suggested that leadership is really about influence – influencing others and perhaps entire organizations, communities, or nations toward a preferred outcome. Another unique perspective of the MSL program is its focus on developing an individual’s ability to think and act strategically; in other words, to approach challenges and opportunities with an eye toward preferred outcomes and a systemic understanding of what business and leadership tools will help you get there. The potential unleashed by connecting a strategic vision with a desire to serve and influence others toward that vision is powerful; it is also ripe for frustration.
I remember when I completed my MBA how excited I was by the understanding I had developed about how organizations were supposed to work and how business functions could work together to move organizations forward. I was armed and dangerous! It didn’t take me long, however, to recognize that organizations seldom live up to their potential and that navigating the chasm between an organization’s current state and the preferred or ideal state is fraught with peril. What was somehow lost on me in my graduate studies was the reality that organizations are just people, and people are messy. If individuals (like me) seldom reach their full potential, why should it be a surprise that organizations typically fall short as well? I have sometimes kidded my colleagues that ignorance is bliss – perhaps I’d be better off if I didn’t realize what was possible and wasn’t trained to help organizations moved toward these possibilities. Of course, that is not the answer or even an option at this point. I also was once labored under the assumption that if I just had the right position and appropriate authority, I could “fix” an organization. In fact, that’s what originally pulled me into academic administration, a sense that I could have greater influence on organizational outcomes. And, while this has been true in many respects, I have learned that there are significant limitations to one’s ability to influence organizational outcomes through positional power. Maxwell (1998, p. 16) calls this “the position myth;” the misunderstanding that leadership is derived from position. While one’s position may provide a platform or opportunity for influence, ultimately people follow people, not positions.
In recent days I have found myself reflecting a lot on leadership and how best to influence an organization toward its vision and preferred outcomes. Having served as a Division Chair for more than a decade, chaired or served on multiple institutional committees at Roberts Wesleyan College, and having chaired two nonprofit boards, I have had significant opportunities to provide positional influence. Unfortunately, positional power brings with it a lot of baggage. First, others have positional power too, and there can be significant inertia toward protecting one’s silo or power base. As a result, those you are trying to influence may be naturally defensive. Second, I think we tend to listen particularly to those in power through the filter of our past experiences with them and the biases we may have about their backgrounds, areas of expertise, perceived agenda, etc., perhaps distorting the intended message. In some ways this may be a bigger challenge for those with longer tenure. Third, real success over the long-term is determined as much or more by strategic execution as strategy formulation, and execution happens throughout an organization, not just in positions of leadership. Given these challenges, how can we increase our impact on the organizations we serve?
Increasingly, I am convinced that we can have as much, or more, influence on organizations through informal networks as we can through formal leadership positions – what I call “leading in the cracks”. This is a much more subtle form of leadership that I think gets at the heart of what makes the MSL approach to leadership different, perhaps in profoundly impactful ways. To lead effectively in the cracks requires identifying and internalizing organizational mission and vision; recognizing one’s unique gifts, abilities, and perspectives; building effective alliances with key partners; and carefully identifying the right opportunities to serve. Let me offer an example from my own experience: one of my gifts is in the area of strategic planning. As I have practiced and developed this skill set, I have increasingly looked for opportunities to use it in service to Roberts Wesleyan College and elsewhere. Accordingly, I assisted Roberts Wesleyan College with the development of an organizational planning process, assisted several Departments with their strategic planning efforts, and am currently helping Roberts Wesleyan College revise is comprehensive strategic plan. I have also helped to draft and implement strategic plans for two nonprofit organizations of which I am a member. Most of this work did not happen through my formal leadership roles, but rather through informal conversations and suggestions at appropriate points in time. It has been amazing and surprising to me how much significant work we have been able to get done, very much behind the scenes. Working quietly with people with whom I have built trusting relationships, who share a vision for the organization, and who don’t feel the compulsion to posture and protect their silo or ego, has been refreshing, rewarding, and has positively influenced the organization. In the process, I have gained further trust and respect from those with whom I have worked most closely and often find that they seek my advice and perspective on other issues, increasing my potential influence on the organizations I serve.
My advice to those of you who are struggling to find your voice and desire to have greater influence in your organizations is to start where you are. Take stock of what gifts, talents, and experiences you bring to the table. Build bridges with key partners and influencers in your organization, then look for opportunities to serve that play to your strengths and move the organization forward. Lead in the cracks… it’s where stuff gets done!
Dr. Steven L. Bovee is professor and chair of the Division of Business at Roberts Wesleyan College where he has taught undergraduate and graduate courses since 1997. His research interests include issues and challenges in Christian higher education; the interrelationships between planning, budgeting, assessment, and continuous improvement; the intersection between one’s faith and professional practice; and leadership development. Dr. Bovee received his Ph.D. in Economics from Oklahoma State University. In addition, he holds a BS in Accounting as well as an MBA from Oral Roberts University. Dr. Bovee may be contacted through email at email@example.com.