Making Change: Leadership New Style

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When setting up a meeting with a so-called young leader, don't expect to get together in a corporate office or conference room. Most of them don't work for major corporations - or small corporations - or any corporation for that matter. Most of them are like Mark Brandt. He rents a small office downtown, but conducts business in any number of offbeat locations. I caught up with him at a resort in Aurora. All that running around seems to energize Brandt, but the Lakewood denizen says he doesn't see himself as a leader.

Mark Brandt: And it just seems like there's need to do certain things so I'm the one doing 'em. But I don't get off on being a leader. As far as I'm concerned, other people are leaders. I'm just an organizer who pulls things together.

Brandt has pulled together several initiatives that could go a long way toward improving the region's economy, if not its profile. He started Say Yes to Cleveland, a kind of road-show for Northeast Ohio businesses designed to induce former Clevelanders to invest in or return to the region. Brandt also runs the Maple Fund, an investment fund specializing in early stage nanotechnology developments. While wearing that hat, he created the Nano-Network, which helps area nano start ups and researchers get to know each other. But despite all that, Brandt still says:

Mark Brandt: I don't see myself as the typical leader, I'm more of an organizer.

But he is - in fact - a leader, says Laura Steinbrink, executive director and co-founder of the leadership training program Cleveland Bridge Builders. He just doesn't fit the traditional mold. And that, she says, is pretty typical of today's new leadership.

Laura Steinbrink: The people that are on the scene today engaging in the community look, smell and feel and think differently than what we've been traditionally used to from our civic leaders.

They don't buy into the traditional hierarchy, Steinbrink says. They aren't afraid of risk. They don't necessarily trust big organizations and they don't want to wait around and be told how to help. They're Gen-Xers, she says, and in order to get things done, they choose to play in smaller sandboxes, and empower others to do the same. That's in sharp contrast to traditional leadership.

Laura Steinbrink: Our leaders have opted to play in big overarching, well-reaching sandboxes with the opinion that we can serve all and we will and we don't need extra help.

Richard Boyatzis: Most of the people we see in leadership aren't good at it. We have distorted views of what leadership is.

Richard Boyatzis is professor of organizational behavior at the Case Weatherhead School of Management. He believes under the old model of leadership, the likelihood that someone who bears the label "leader" is actually effectual is relatively slim. He says not only does good leadership take a certain set of innate skills, but the stars have to be aligned for people to be receptive to a leader's influence. The conditions aren't always perfect for someone with a new idea to influence others - but working on a smaller scale, he says, makes it more likely for new leaders to emerge and succeed.

Richard Boyatzis: So if you allow this ebb and flow then what you end up saying is, what can I do for my unit? What can I do for my neighborhood? What can I do for my department? What can I do in my community? What can I do in the work that I do and what can I do in the way I help and reach out to others.

That pretty much describes David Akers, who's both a civic and business entrepreneur, and whose office is frequently the coffee shop closest to his next meeting. Akers continuously pursues ideas that he thinks will help the region, he says, but he dreads making what he calls "The Pilgrimage" to the traditional power brokers to get his ideas heard.

David Akers: When you want to get something done on the civic side you go talk to whomever. Almost always the reaction is going to be, "Well, I need you talk to these five other people." And some of those people say, "Yeah, I think it's a great idea sign me up," and others will say, "Well I want you to speak to these three or four or five people."

Akers says that's part of the culture of Northeast Ohio, in both the public and private sectors: no one makes a decision without a certain set of people signing on. It's frustrating, he says, but it seems to be the only way for initiatives to gain acceptance and support from the community.

David Akers: So what I see happen is there's a lot of folks - maybe who aren't on the radar screen - who have decided they're not going to through that process. That they're going to find the space, where there's an opportunity, something that ought to get done, and they're just going to do it their way; and their going to do it their way, as opposed to doing it the way.

Some of these new, small organizations eventually do gain credibility in the eyes of the establishment, Akers says, and some remain undetected. But if the region is serious about building a strong future for Northeast Ohio, he says, then everyone needs to learn to adapt to a new style of leadership. In Cleveland, Shula Neuman, 90.3.

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