September 4, 2016

Renting Your Seat at the Leadership Table


One of the best lessons my mentors taught me is that you don't permanently own your seat at the leadership table no matter how talented, knowledgeable, or caring you might be. Part of leadership success is knowing when to exit and create space for the enthusiastic contributions of others.

Yet while at the table we do have to adopt an owner's mindset for the responsibilities and consequences of the contributions and decisions we make while still understanding we are temporary custodians and part of an ongoing leadership legacy. This is true whether we serve in a formal leadership position or if we are someone who simply has accrued access and influence that gets us attention.  Unless we are founding members of an organization, many have come before us and many are still to come.

Embracing our temporary role as owners applies to both formal leadership positions and informal leadership in the moment or a meeting: contribute, but ensure others can do so also.  Effective leadership orientation and transition can reinforce this premise.  Here's an example from my distant past.


1980-81 Executive Board, Illinois Association of Student Councils
As a senior in high school, I had the tremendous honor of serving as the state president for the Illinois Association of Student Councils.  One of the most powerful memories I have about assuming that leadership position involves a simple scrapbook provided to me during orientation to my office.  Bulging at the seams, the scrapbook contained a page or two dedicated to pictures, clippings, and written advice from each of the previous state presidents.

During my term, I often returned to their thoughts for inspiration and perspective.  Each reading helped change my thinking about "making my mark" on the association. The pages reminded me I was one of many. My job was to build on what others had created, add my contributions to it, and turn it over to the next person ... both the scrapbook and my seat at the table.

Begin planning for leadership transition the day you come into office, not a few weeks before you leave.

What rituals could you create to reinforce the understanding you want your volunteer and staff leaders to embrace about their temporary seat at the table?