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On leading change: Why we need to change the way we train leaders

A conversation with David on his journey as a mobilizer and his views on “cross-sector leadership”
August 22, 2016


David Smith had to study for his civil engineering midterm exam, but it was the night of the U.S. presidential election and the vote was too close to call. David stayed up into the wee hours of the morning following the news. Needless to say, he didn’t do well on his midterm the following day.

When his engineering professor was asked why the midterm was scheduled the day after such an important political event, the professor blithely told David that “we train the best engineers here” and if David wanted to be involved in politics, he should go to the other side of campus.
This exchange got David thinking about how he wanted to make an impact in the world. Did he want to build amazing bridges and physical structures, or build bridges that connected people? David ended up majoring in political science and co-founding a youth civic engagement network while still an undergraduate student, which he then ran for another four years. His journey as a civic mobilizer, strategist, and leader has informed a lot of his thinking about leadership and what it takes to build a diverse and engaged community.

The need for "cross-sector-leadership"

Today, David is the managing director at the Presidio Institute, where he is passionate about “cross-sector leadership” – the idea that to solve today’s complex problems we really need to be able to bring leaders in different sectors together – business, nonprofit, government, academia, faith-based institutions, and more.

However, getting such diverse groups of people working together productively is difficult.

People are better at pointing fingers at each other, than pointing fingers at the challenge.

For example, government might complain about businesses being overly profit-driven at the expense of community or other ethical considerations, while businesses might complain about over-regulation by the government.

The roots of our lack of “cross-sector leadership” as David describes it has three key elements:

1. Harking back to David’s experience as an undergraduate, our education system is siloed. 

2. Our institutions are also siloed. Institutions are often optimized to succeed within their own sectors. “They’ve figured out how to work within their system, their construct, but are there ways to be able to create change at the intersection?” he asked.

3. Which is more of an outcome reinforced by the first two points, is the continued erosion of trust within and between institutions, leaders and communities. There is a real “us vs. them” mentality that permeates much of our work and community life today. This lack of trust is what fundamentally gets in the way of communities collaborating.

At its heart, “cross-sector leadership” describes the need for leaders who are able to build bridges of trust between diverse groups of people.

What needs to change? 

The good news is that like Acumen Academy, David believes that such leaders can come from anywhere, which provides the world with a tremendous opportunity for positive change.
First, we need to correct a fundamental misunderstanding of what “leadership” means, and that is probably the most important thing to change. David observes that “when most people say ‘leadership’ they actually mean ‘management.' Management works well when there are clear lines of authority. [However], when you’re not in that system, which is most of the real world, you need to think differently about how you exercise the same types of skill sets. A key mindset shift is how to get people to lead in a context where they don’t have clear lines of authority.”

A second shift, is more fundamental, the willingness of a leader to be challenged and perhaps change themselves. This takes great self-awareness, an openness to listening to people unlike yourself and a willingness to find ways to come together. As David notes:

"One person’s truth is not necessarily right over anyone else’s, but collectively you can actually find what it means to be a member of that community. There is a lot of grey and only understanding how you enter into that type of a conversation in a posture of learning, and in a posture of contributing, and in a posture of joint ownership and collaboration…that’s ultimately where you’re going to be able to achieve change. That happens in a fellowship, that happens in a community, that is what civic health is about." 

You can listen to my full conversation with David Smith where we discuss:

  • David’s journey as a mobilizer, his explanation of the factors that contribute to civic health, and his observations around why civic health in the United States has declined in the last three decades
  • David’s view on “cross-sector leadership” and how the Presidio Institute trains such leaders
  • Tips on how to think and practice “cross-sector leadership” in your own community 
The Presidio Institute offers a full range of cross-sector leadership training opportunities – both in person and online. Their online platform Leaderosity offers paid courses that include instructor facilitation and coaching (different from Acumen Academy's free online courses).
Acumen Academy also offers a suite of leadership courses that touch on aspects described above – Adaptive Leadership and The Path of Moral Leadership
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Jo-Ann Tan

Jo-Ann Tan is the Director and Lead Architect of Acumen Academy, The World's School for Social Change.