By: DJ Whetter, CEO, CiviCO

I’ll never forget the day my definition of leadership changed forever. It has led to some of the most amazing work I’ve ever done.

I’m obsessed with leadership. I study it. I read about it constantly. I believe I’m an expert on the subject. But, at a conference in the Spring of 2013, I had an experience that made me reconsider everything I thought leadership was about.

On the first day of the conference, our facilitator sat in front of the group and posed a simple question: “We’re here to learn about leadership, where should we begin?” They then sat down in silence, leaving a noticeable gap at the front of the room. What followed was 45 minutes of awkward silence, frustration, uncomfortable laughter and trying to get the facilitator to take charge of our time together. And for what FELT like hours…the facilitator simply sat silently among us. Where was the intention?

Needless to say, people were genuinely angry, and some walked out and didn’t return. I sat there, frustrated, wondering when the facilitator would take charge? Exactly 45 minutes after the facilitator posed the original question, they said: “We’ve reached a time boundary. Have a great night. We’ll see you at 9 a.m. tomorrow morning back in this room.”

Immediately, our cohort gathered to unpack our experience. After about two hours of talking, we had an epiphany. We weren’t frustrated or angry, we were curious about what we had experienced. We wanted to know more.

Hoping our experience would be more beneficial, we returned the next day. Promptly at 9 a.m. a different facilitator stepped in front of the group. They asked us to take a high view perspective and have a discussion on what had happened the day before. No answers were provided by the facilitator after our discussion. Instead, another question was posed: “What did any of that exercise have to do with leadership?”

Aside from that being a completely wrong way of going about facilitation, what followed was the most amazing conversation about leadership with my cohort. The group started to unpack the idea that authority & management are different than leadership. We were angry because the authority in the room had not lived up to our expectations. A good authority figure should provide protection, direction, and order. We did not experience that example of authority.

Leadership isn’t about filling that authority vacuum and trying to take over, but it is an activity that’s available to anyone, anytime. What if we define leadership as a set of activities and behaviors, rather than a role someone plays? What if leadership was about learning how to deploy those behaviors to increase participation? Leadership ought to invite others into the mess of a challenge or opportunity early in the process. Our goal isn’t efficiency, it’s learning. It’s HEART-Level leadership. When deploying these values new stakeholders, innovative ideas, and PROGRESS are possible. Leaders must create a container where stakeholders can consider the tensions of the work they are facing and solve them together.

Consider the biggest challenges Colorado faces. We can’t fix any of these daunting issues through strict authority. To solve an issue effectively as leaders, we must recognize and negotiate the competing tensions. How will we decide the right blend? Imagine two ends of a spectrum, authority on one side and leadership on the other. Each challenge we face asks us to blend our formal or informal authority with the behaviors of leadership.

This is why I believe in the mission of CiviCO and CTLF.

I believe that leadership practices can be blended, and taught, and the skills and behaviors needed to make more progress on our toughest challenges can be known and solved. I’ve facilitated leadership conversations and consulted on tough challenges in Australia, China, Germany, India, Israel, and beyond! The culture and challenges look different, the underlying issues don’t.

Very simply, our toughest challenges require us to leave our preferred modes of operation behind (authority), lean into the discomfort of not knowing, and invite others (especially individuals with a different perspective on the challenge) into the work.

And, if you lean too deeply into this provocative world view, it might just invite you to do something bold, like pick up your family and move them to a state where they know nobody!

You have something special in CTLF! I’m ready to do some amazing work together. Let’s create a healthier and more prosperous community of HEART-Level leaders across Colorado!