Parting thoughts: leading through not leading

Julia Propp/Courtesy

The following is a farewell column from our 2012 Graduation Issue. Read the other farewell columns here.

This column is written for all you once and future leaders out there. In other words, it’s written for everyone. The question of “governance” and how it relates to the community is truly critical. As far as why I’m writing about this topic … it’s something I think about constantly. My qualifications? Academically, I studied political economy (learning how power and authority are inevitably somewhat oppressive), and cognitive science (learning about how people’s brains understand the world). Practically, I’ve spent the last two and a half years in various leadership roles (president, vice president, etc.) of the Berkeley Student Cooperative (the co-ops), running meetings, dealing with crises, crafting policy and so on. I’m not exaggerating when I say I’ve explored over a half-dozen different leadership philosophies, mainstream and esoteric.

What I took away from it all was that even well-meaning individuals don’t know what’s best and that the excitement that comes with leadership can make it hard for them to keep in touch with the people they’re leading. Their judgment, while valuable at times, can also be seriously flawed by their desire to make things better. And yet, we give our leaders responsibility and authority to make things happen. How can a leader ensure that they’re doing good? The key is the group. I’m suggesting that the leader’s role is to create an environment where the group is capable of acting on its own — in other words, to lead by not leading.

Groups are fascinating. They have the power to draw out the best in people or to silence them. Leaders have the opportunity to create a culture that enhances others, brings out their creativity, their passion, their devotion. The trick is to humble yourself and reject the tempting notion that you have the ability to make anything happen directly. Resist the urge to micromanage, to direct, to nudge. Those strategies may give you results in the short-term, but they won’t in the long haul. Instead, step back and appreciate that you’re working in the company of brilliant people, and focus on telling them how much they are all capable of.

Research abounds showing that people tend to live out their expectations. If you tell someone he or she is destined to succeed, odds are he or she find a way. If you tell someone he or she will never amount to anything, there’s a good chance he or she won’t. Don’t underestimate how powerful a motivator you can be by just telling people they’ve got what it takes and that you’re excited to see what they do.

By believing in the people you’re leading, you give them all the room to be their most creative selves, room to disagree and, most importantly, room to fail. By focusing your leadership energy on the group and letting the group decide outcomes, you’ll foster a group dynamic that gives rise to high-level group intelligence. Furthermore, you’ll build leadership capacity in others, which will pay off in the long run.

In undergrad, I learned that no one can really do it alone. By leading through empowering, you’ll create not only a more unified but a wiser and more creative group and outcome. Odds are you’ll enjoy it, too.

Daniel Kronovet, a political economy and cognitive science double major, was president of the Berkeley Student Cooperative from August 2010 to August 2011.