A Conversation with Deborah Meehan of Leadership Learning Community
Interview by Alexis Schroeder
Leadership Learning Community (LLC) is a nonprofit organization focused on leveraging leadership as a means to create a more just and equitable society. Through publications, public speaking, and consulting, LLC has pioneered innovative ideas for strengthening the field of leadership development. In 2009, LLC launched Leadership for a New Era (LNE)–a collaborative research initiative that seeks to promote leadership approaches that are more inclusive, networked, and collective.
After coming across LLC’s recent report, “Leadership and Race: How to Develop and Support Leadership that Contributes to Racial Justice,” I reached out to Founder and Executive Director Deborah Meehan to learn more about LLC’s work, their unique approach to understanding leadership, and their goals for the future.
NPi: What is purpose of Leadership Learning Community?
Deborah Meehan: Our purpose is to transform the way leadership development is conceived, conducted, and evaluated so that we can increase our learning about how to do the work better. We work mostly with organizations developing leadership in the nonprofit sector. We’ve also connected with faith-based organizations and government. I’d say the sector that we’d like to work with that we haven’t yet connected with enough is business. Although we’re actively learning from every possible sector our application is to support leadership working around social good and social justice.
NPi: What is unique about LLC’s approach?
DM: We’re a learning community of people who care about leadership development, and we’re a pretty diverse group of stakeholders. We include people who run leadership programs, funders who invest in leadership, a whole team of consultants in the field who provide support to leadership programs, evaluators, and researchers. And we’ve decided that by connecting our learning, we can build a knowledge base for the field so that people coming into this work have an increased ability and opportunity to learn from each other.
[In any field], we’re so used to being fragmented or overwhelmed with the volume of things we’re trying to accomplish, we get kind of locked into our organizations and don’t build those bridges to people doing the same work we’re doing. We’re missing a lot of opportunities to learn from each other.
Another thing about the nonprofit sector that’s unfortunate is very often you feel most competitive with the people who are doing the same work you’re doing because you’re imagining that you’re in this small niche where there is limited funding. Even though your missions are most aligned, you’re less likely to support and help each other. We’re trying to shift that whole culture and way of looking at our work and get people to imagine that instead we can support each other with a lot of resources, especially knowledge resources. We can expand the pie instead of competing over the pie. We need to shift our thinking and philosophies from one of scarcity and competition to one of abundance. As we create that different culture, we can connect our learning. We don’t have to hoard our successes as our competitive edge. And we don’t have to protect our learning from failures—which actually is a very effective way to learn. We try to hide our failures from each other because we’re afraid of having those mistakes exploited in a competitive market. We’re trying to encourage people to be strong collaborators and learning partners.
NPi: Can you tell me more about Leadership for a New Era?
DM: For about seven years, we operated mostly as a learning exchange. What we do as a learning community is bring people together in learning circles, hold national meetings, do webinars and virtual learning projects. We’ve asked ourselves, how can people connect and exchange their ideas and resources?
After about seven years of consulting (and what we called an exchange in building a community of trust) and looking at the work of 500 organizations, we decided that we had a point of view about the field of leadership development and where it needed to go–especially if we were to achieve the large-scale changes that we were after. We wondered, “Is there a way for us to speak with more of a point of view around leadership development that continues to open up the learning and catalyze it, instead of shutting down the learning from people who might feel differently about leadership?”
About two and a half years ago, we started a project called Leadership for a New Era to look at what we had learned over those seven years. We came to a critique of the field of leadership that was calling on the field to think about leadership differently. We decided that as a field, we needed to think about leadership in ways that were more inclusive, networked, and collective. This would be necessary if we were going to be able to scale our work and deal with significant issues like health reform, poverty reduction, and quality education.
First, we imagined that we’d just write a series of papers that would help people understand how our thinking needs to change, to critique the old way of thinking. In a nutshell, that old way of thinking is that we tend to think of leaders as individuals who are either developed to have skills or invested with natural qualities, or by virtue of their position and authority, are able to exert influence over others to get them to do what the leader envisions. We’re helping the field understand that we will all be better served by understanding that leadership is not the achievements of one individual, but a process enacted by many people sharing responsibility and developing a vision together.
When we say leadership is a process, we acknowledge that a process is made up of individuals. We’re not saying that there isn’t work that needs to be done to support those individuals, but in a way, it’s a very different and probably even more difficult kind of work [to view leadership as a process]. The work of learning to manage your ego, your personal agenda or your own goals about what you want to have happen in a group, is sometimes more difficult than leading and taking charge and being in the limelight by yourself.
A lot of cultural traditions in this country and especially around the world have a much more collective orientation towards leadership. So we aren’t claiming to have come upon a new idea; we’re just starting to understand that in this country, the culture of individualism is so strong that it’s distorted the way that we think about and understand leadership. When we have this lens that emphasizes the heroic behaviors and acts of individuals, we get so invested in that point of view that we miss how things are actually occurring and the number of people who are working together to make things happen and what that takes.
With our papers for Leadership for a New Era, we’ve explored leadership and race and how this attachment to individuals has influenced our thinking in ways that cause us to be less inclusive and less able to deal with issues of race in this country. We are also planning on exploring three additional topics: leadership and networks, collective leadership, and leadership across boundaries. But with this project, we talked about inviting the leadership community to send us their ideas and materials and everything they had written about [leadership and race]. And somebody said, shouldn’t we try to embody the type of leadership that we’re promoting in the way that we do this work? That was a big pause for all of us.
At that point we saw that this was going to take more time. We were sure it would have more benefit, we were already seeing that to be true. We reached out to many people. We formed 20 partnerships and created a whole new platform because we wanted people to come in at a groundfloor level as co-owners/investors in the work. We decided to try to write four articles collaboratively with partners on a public wiki so that anybody would be able to come in and be part of the conversation. What we’re talking about here is a profound cultural shift in the way people think about leadership. And if we really wanted to take on something like that, we knew we would have much more influence if we worked with 20 partners who were all going to help move our thinking throughout their channels. It would create more of an exponential impact [this way]. With our partners, in co-branding, and collaboratively writing these pieces—it’s a call to the field to where we need to be going if we really want to have an impact on social justice issues. It’s been great fun, hair-pulling at times, but we came out with a great product. You have to dig in and it takes more time, but where you’re getting is somewhere more powerful.
NPi: Can you tell me more about the resources Leadership Learning Community has produced?
DM: We’ve created a platform so that any of our partners in the Leadership for a New Era project can try to raise funds for pieces they want to produce and invite people from the community to become their partners. One of the things we haven’t done, but I think would be really important, is a piece on systems-thinking. Systems-thinking is a good framework to move beyond thinking about individuals or siloed organizations. In addition to producing these reports, we’re creating resource directories on our Leadership for a New Era website. Each of the major themes we’re tackling has a pretty extensive resource directory that all of the people who are participating in the Leadership for a New Era project are helping to populate.
NPi: Where do you see Leadership Learning Community in the larger shift of social change happening right now—the ways in which work is changing, how people are beginning to do their work differently, the changes we’re seeing around leadership structures?
We’ve been following the network development field very closely and the impact it has on leadership development. We’re very excited about network-centric approaches because we think they’re more scalable and sustainable. The social architecture of movement building is changing especially with the younger generation coming up and a whole population of people becoming more adept with social technologies.
We’re going to need a very different type of leader and leadership now. You can’t bring the old command and control, directive style leadership style into a network. It won’t work, it’s antithetical. So we’re very excited by the whole field of network development and think it can help push the nonprofit sector to break out of some of the siloed thinking.
We’re also looking at whether or not the economic downturn, which is very serious issue for nonprofits right now, could in fact be an impetus for higher levels of collaboration. We’re trying to collaborate more. As part of an entrepreneurial approach, we’ve [expanded] our consulting services. Consultants are often great conduits of knowledge. They move from organization to organization and have an aerial view of things that a lot of folks don’t. But because of the way that we think about consulting as a business and proprietariness of tools, a lot of times that knowledge doesn’t get harnessed. There’s a different challenge in asking some consultants and evaluators to share their tools because their tools are their bread and butter. [They might not want to put them] in the public domain. We realized that consultants weren’t getting the same benefits of a collegial, peer-learning environment by virtue of the business model. We wanted to shift that business model, so we decided to go after some big projects where we could do put together teams of consultants. We’re trying to think of ways that consultants can think of themselves as knowledge producers in the field, not just for clients… We approach consulting as a way of transforming competition into collaboration in ways that will expand the knowledge base of the entire field.
NPi: What advice would you pass on to young leaders or would be leaders?
DM: We’re strongly committed to democratizing the way that we think about leadership. Leadership is something everyone can exercise. I think we’ve become too precious with what we think leadership is. Leadership happens in families, classrooms, not just the boardroom. What can happen to young people is that others, who are not so young, might act as if young people need to be developed into leadership as opposed to respecting and honoring the leadership that young people are already exercising. Young people now are in a great position to help move the field [forward].
I went to a meeting three or four years ago where the topic was the generational shift in leadership and predictions that the baby boomers were all going to retire and there would be a void in leadership as a whole generation of nonprofit managers, directors, and middle managers stepped down. A couple of people at the meeting said we have to pass on our wisdom, we have to teach everything we know to the next generation coming up. At the time I remember thinking that could be a dreadful mistake because I feel like the organizational environment is rapidly changing. What we have to do is create space for those new ideas and perspectives and energy. The nonprofit sector has lots of issues and challenges, and for us to try to retrain everybody to try to do things the way they’ve been done—I think that would be a dreadful mistake.
We need to be excited that there are a lot of young people coming up. They can be the impetus for change and doing things differently. Sometimes you need somebody who hasn’t done it the same way for 10 years to come in and see another way of doing things. I encourage young people to step into leadership, to understand leadership is a process, and to connect with other in acting on those things they care most about. I’d like to get rid of the mystique of leadership… I’m not so much about the skills-based approach either. Lots of times people bring a group together to support them in their leadership, and sometimes the best thing that happens is that group becomes a community. There’s a lot of wisdom and assets that we all bring to that community that can help us grow collectively. I’m talking about leadership development and what it looks like, but I would beware of any leadership strategy that has a deficit approach and wants to fix you.
As our own community at LLC, we’re beginning to see things that we need to do better. We’d like to learn more about media, social media, and how to get our message out. And we are learning a lot from our youngest person on staff!
NPi: Can you speak briefly about LLC’s Leadership and Race work?
DM: I want to offer a caution about how we think about leadership. Because of the influence of our culture’s attachment to individualism, we tend to think that when people are in leadership or not in leadership, it’s because of individual merit and skill and talent. We can’t buy that story. We have opportunity structures in this country that have been developed historically through policies and culture and institutional practices that have given great advantage to some and have denied a lot of opportunity to others.
In the spirit of this season, there is an applicable metaphor, a lot of people think that they hit a triple when they were actually born on third base. And it really does fall out along the lines of race and class. When there’s an underrepresentation of people of color in the nonprofit sector, it’s because of those opportunity structures, it’s not because of ability. As a field, we have to address that and begin to do something about it in our recruitment and hiring biases.
How to get involved:
Please visit www.leadershipforanewera.org to join the learning community and learn about upcoming events.