Shut Up and Lead

(or the balance of leadership and empowerment)

As I relaunched my journey of writing again, I was struck by a discussion that seems to surround the millennial workforce, if you want to lead, you appear to have to become more private.

I’ve been processing this conversation over the past two months and wanted to come back to the original idea again.

The deeper question is simpler while the answer is harder. The questions that continue to pop up after writing that piece is much more complex. What do you do when you have an opinion that you feel strongly about?

As a process person, I’ve been stewing on a matrix and I have boiled it down to, act on core values and stay silent on a core mission. Definition time.

Core Values
This is what makes you think, feel, know, and believe in your heart of hearts. This is you fundamental ethos and raison d’etre.
Core Mission
What is your purpose? What is your driver? Why do you do what you do. This is the belief or value set that acts as your extrinsic motivator.

Now it comes to action versus inaction. Let me first clarify one main thing, action isn’t always good. Sometimes inaction takes more work and is more prudent. This is true for managers versus leadership. Sometimes you need an elite manager who kills a task or operations. Sometimes you need a person who moves the ball forward and engages at a visionary level. Neither are superior. They are different needs that fulfill different objectives.

After going through the Emerge program from Leadership Austin, I like to use the idea of where to lead from — front, middle, behind.

When it comes to core values, I believe you have to lead from the front. You must speak up. See a wrong, act. It is important when your fundamental ethos is in conflict with the action you see or experience, you have to become an engaged participant. Acting on core values shapes consensus and long-term culture of the world we live in.

Let me give you the example a colleague recently brought up with me.

A person is in a meeting and looks around. They see that there are community leaders and critical voices missing. Do you bring it up in the room, pull the leader aside, or encourage someone else to share ways to be more inclusive?

There is no wrong action. All lead to good outcomes. Here is the problem I brought up… what happens if you stay silent? Will the person you talk with bring up the idea and will they do it in a timely or effective way? If not you should probably speak up. Then the question is do you lead from the from tor middle. If you speak up in the room how and why do you act? If you pull the person aside, do you make it urgent and important enough for them to act?

To make one decision on leadership, there are about 20 questions that immediately pop up. And I have strong thoughts on decision fatigue and creating habits to limit having to answer questions like this.

Let’s look at this from the other direction. You aren’t engaging from a position of values but mission. Let’s go back to the same question a friend brought up. There is someone or some group not included. You want to engage and is because of an organizational or personal mission. Something to the effect of, “the community is stronger when we add more voices”.

That statement of empowerment is a critical training and engagement opportunity. It is an easy solution, get someone else trained up, prepared, and supported to act. A mission needs a team. It is collaborative by nature. This is a perfect and clear leader behind (or middle) opportunity. I find this is what I try to do the most in board meetings, committee meetings, and community events.

So when do you speak up and speak out?

It goes back to core values. Whether that is injustice, questions of fairness, or whatever else makes your heartache or passions flare.

This isn’t about sharing how to effectively speak up. There are a lot of quality posts about speaking up.

You should read them.

This about the tension of when to act. As a leader, you might want to speak up more often. You may have a local election coming up and you want to be heard.

There might a policy debate or success or tragedy facing your community. You have to choose when it’s the right moment for you to add your voice. Leaders lead. There is no question there. The hard part of being a leader is when to add your opinion and when trust the people around you.

More times than not, you will (and should) be silent and lead from behind or the middle. Only when your core values are in conflict should you speak up. If for not other reason, if everything is a top priority and worthy fight, nothing is. Pick your opportunities thoughtfully and lead prudently. All the other times are an opportunity to grow your community.


If you like this, I hope you will recommend the story. If you have other tips and tricks, please share your best practices in the comments and help me grow as person and nonprofit Executive Director.

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