what I learned about leadership from the Emerging Leaders

About five and a half years ago, I was sitting in a big room in conventionland (San Diego, but who’s counting) with my class of Emerging Leaders, as we brainstormed about the qualities of an excellent leader.

Someone was writing those qualities up on a flip chart and, gosh, would I have liked to work for flip chart lady. She was so perceptive and thoughtful and strategic and empathetic and not bad at anything and just great. Way cooler than me. Everyone would like to work for flip chart lady.

And then one of my brainstorming colleagues said, you know, there’s one quality we haven’t put up there, because it’s not actually a core competency for leaders, and that’s intelligence. And the room nodded in agreement, because she was right. You probably can’t be an effective leader if you’re genuinely dumb, but all other things being equal, being smarter doesn’t actually make you a better leader. And we’ve all met really smart people who were disastrous leaders; intelligence alone simply does not confer the needed skills. Fundamentally, if “leader” were a D&D class, its prime requisite would not be INT.

The whole room nodded along with her while I thought, well crap, that’s the only thing I’ve always been good at.

So I was in a funk for a while, mulling that over. And eventually decided, well, people I respect put me in this room; I’m not going to tell them they’re wrong. I’m going to find a way to make it work. I’m going to look for the situations where the skills I have can make a difference, where my weaknesses don’t count against me too much. There’s not a shortage of situations in the world that need more leadership; I’ll just have to look for the ones where the leader that’s needed can be me. They won’t be the same situations where the people to my left and right will shine, and that’s okay. And if I’m not flip chart lady, if I’m missing half her strengths and I’m littered with weaknesses she doesn’t have (because she doesn’t have any)…well, as it turns out, no one is flip chart lady. We all have weaknesses. We are all somehow, if we’re leading interesting lives at all, inadequate to the tasks we set ourselves, and perhaps leadership consists largely in rising to those tasks nonetheless.

So here I am, five and a half years later, awed and humbled to be the LITA Vice-President elect. With a spreadsheet open where I’m sketching out at the Board’s request a two-year plan for the whole association, because if intelligence is the one thing you’ve always been good at, and the thing that’s needed is assimilating years’ worth of data about people and budgets and goals and strengths and weaknesses and opportunities, and transmuting that into something coherent and actionable…

Well hey. Maybe that’ll do.

Thanks for giving me the chance, everybody. I couldn’t possibly be more excited to serve such a thoughtful, creative, smart, motivated, fun, kind bunch of people. To figure out how LITA can honor your efforts and magnify your work as, together, we take a national association with near fifty years of history into its next fifty years. I can’t be flip chart lady for you (no one can), but I am spreadsheet lady, and I’m here for you. Let’s rock.

2 thoughts on “what I learned about leadership from the Emerging Leaders

  1. On the “Does organization X value intelligence as a leadership skill” chart, LITA just might be an outlier. I, for one, am glad to know that the next two presidents will be pretty darn smart.


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