Implementing Responsive Leadership

Leaders who pride themselves on being turnaround experts put the goal of radical change upfront and seek opportunities to fulfill that goal. Similarly, leaders with a burning desire to make the world a better place put that mission upfront and look for venues in which to fulfill it.

Some of these leaders are highly accomplished and valuable, but they rely on what I call systematic leadership. They carry a set of methods and laws—principles governing actions—with them everywhere they go. Generally, they are hired because they are competent in applying those methods and laws in different places. They have the ability, intention, and focus to get organizations to respond to them and to their style of leading. In the extreme, these systematic leaders are the type President Dwight D. Eisenhower criticized when he said, “You do not lead by hitting people over the head—that's assault, not leadership.”

I'm more of a “surprise me!” kind of person. I invite the universe to pique my curiosity, show me new ways to learn, and invite me into new leadership challenges by helping me recognize opportunities. For these reasons, I describe what I offer you as responsive leadership. In moving through life, I look for opportunities. Goals, missions, and strategies come out of seizing these. For example, I saw the opportunity to lead a struggling college; then the requirements of leadership took shape: the goal of turning it around, the mission of giving students unprecedented chances for growth, and the strategies to support the goal and mission.

Responsive leaders are very focused on the people—the humanity—within the opportunity. I believe deeply in higher education and its power to lift people out of poverty to places where they can change communities and society as a whole for the better. Yes, in a strictly business sense, the opportunity was to effect a turnaround. However, it would have meant very little to me to succeed if I didn't see what that meant in terms of people's lives. I need to be in a position from which I can make systemic change, where I can work on challenges that are transformational.

When people interview someone for the senior executive position at an organization, they always ask, “What's your vision for the job?” A systematic leader can pull that answer out of his pocket; he comes in with a clear idea of what he can do and what he wants to do. If you're a responsive leader, however, you think, “How the hell am I supposed to know that? I'm interviewing for the job and won't know until I'm on the job.”

A characteristic of a responsive leader is her desire for a shared vision. It's not about imposing what one person thinks should happen on others, it's about responding to the genuine needs of the organization and building a vision shared by the people who aim to meet those needs. You are never just responding, however. Every step of the way, you are leading by example so that people respond to you in a way that shapes the culture of your organization. If you want people to work hard, you must work hard. If you want people to be transparent, then you have to be transparent. If you want honesty to be a pervasive trait of your organization, then you must be honest. If you want people to treat each other with fairness, then you must be fair.

Okay, now let's introduce the formula for responsive leadership. When you blend flour, baking powder, salt, and a little milk, you get batter. As any cook knows, you can do a million things with that batter.

This is a metaphor for responsive leadership. A little of this and a little of that, or lots of this and less of that, depending on the circumstances. Then you blend and you put your metaphorical batter to work in myriad environments. This style of leadership proves versatile and transferrable. And like the recipe for a basic batter, it's relatively easy to teach.

Implementing responsive leadership begins with how you treat yourself and interact with the people closest to you.