The New Portrait Of Leadership: Cleveland Justis Of Potrero Group On Strategies to Shape Yourself Into A Modern Masterpiece
Effective leaders take a big step back, notice patterns and trends, and reframe them for a new way of seeing things.
We are living in the Renaissance of Work. Just like great artists know that an empty canvas can become anything, great leaders know that an entire organization — and the people inside it — can become anything, too. Master Artists and Mastering the Art of Leadership draw from the same source: creation. In this series, we’ll meet masters who are creating the future of work and painting a portrait of lasting leadership. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing We are living in the Renaissance of Work. Just like great artists know that an empty canvas can become anything, great leaders know that an entire organization — and the people inside it — can become anything, too. Master Artists and Mastering the Art of Leadership draw from the same source: creation. In this series, we’ll meet masters who are creating the future of work and painting a portrait of lasting leadership. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Cleveland Justis.
An accomplished organizational leader in the environmental and entrepreneurial arenas for the past 30 years, Cleveland Justis is co-founder and principal at the Potrero Group, a consulting and executive search firm. Justis formerly served as executive director of UC Davis’ Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and before that he was co-founder and director of the Institute at the Golden Gate, where he led numerous high-profile organizational change initiatives. He has a PhD and MBA from UC Davis. He currently teaches Social Entrepreneurship at UC Berkeley and leads the UC Davis Executive Leadership program.
Justis is an academic, a practitioner, and a leader specializing in large scale ventures operating at the intersection of business, government, and nonprofit sectors. He has personally taught, led, or coached thousands of individuals and organizations how to transform their organizations or bring their ideas into reality. Justis co-authored and just released Don’t Lead Alone: Think Like a System, Act Like a Network, Lead Like a Movement is published by Fast Company Press. The book became an immediate bestseller on Amazon.
Thank you for joining us. Our readers would enjoy discovering something interesting about you. What are you in the middle of right now that you’re excited about personally or professionally?
At the moment, I’m focused on our book launch which has taken on a life of its own. We’ve been so excited to see the response to this book. It seems like the concepts we outline of thinking like a system, acting like a network, and leading like movement are really resonating with readers.
I’m also focused on my teaching at Berkeley. I always learn so much from my students — especially this group. They’re learning how to apply the concepts from the book to social enterprises from around the world.
We all get by with a little help from our friends. Who is the leader that has influenced you the most, and how?
This is a challenging question to answer because I don’t believe in “hero leaders.” My leadership style has been profoundly influenced by the many mentors, leaders, and colleagues I’ve bet through my leadership journey.
Having said that, I’ve been most influenced by a remarkable leader named Brian O’Neill. He was a government employee largely responsible for helping transform ten former military bases surrounding San Francisco into stunning national parks. One doesn’t often think of the government as a hotbed of leadership skill but that perception can be wrong. Brian was remarkable because his financial resources were so constrained that he had to innovate everywhere he looked. His innovation came by letting go of control and letting the community lead. As a result he and his organization helped turn a former prison (Alcatraz) into San Francisco’s #1 tourist destination (generating hundreds of millions of dollars of annual economic value). He also helped transform vast lands full of toxic waste and barbed wire into beautiful parks that add so much to the quality of life in the region.
Sometimes our biggest mistakes lead to our biggest discoveries. What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made as a leader, and what did you discover as a result?
Oh my! I make mistakes every day….but I try to learn from them. The biggest mistake I’ve made (and made again) is to try to be a control freak. So many leaders are. And I’ve learned to let go and let my team lead. When I try to control things I deny people the opportunity to learn, grow, and innovate.
How has your definition of leadership changed or evolved over time? What does it mean to be a leader now?
My definition of leadership has been largely influenced by my research on leadership. I became fascinated by how people accomplished great things like developing and deploying vaccines, building large scale housing developments, or solving massive environmental problems. The more I undertook the research, the more I found that people were collaborating across sectors. Initially I was taught that great leaders were experts in a specific field or topic. My research proved otherwise. What I found is that great leaders were great at harnessing the talent of others. They were able to bring in people with very different skills. Take for example developing a new medicine. Medical researchers or pharma companies can’t do this alone…they need the government to provide research funding, they need business people to invest and scale the work, and they need community groups and clinicians to distribute the medicine. Each of these sectors has distinct skills and great leaders can harness these people from these sectors and utilize their skills toward great outcomes.
Success is as often as much about what we stop as what we start. What is one legacy leadership behavior you stopped because you discovered it was no longer valuable or relevant?
I completely agree. Focus is essential in any leadership setting. But I stepped back mid-career and went back to school to get my PhD. I refocused, if you will and invested in lifelong learning and exploring. I’m still learning to carve time for exploration of new topics, and, importantly, self-exploration and introspection. Unfocused time can be valuable and can be innovative. .
What is one lasting leadership behavior you started or are cultivating because you believe it is valuable or relevant?
I’m particularly interested in helping cultivate skills to lead like a movement. So often we try to do everything ourselves, yet the truly great business and social sector leaders help their team feel like they’re part of something much larger. Take Patagonia, for instance. They’ve made billions of dollars selling clothes. But if you look at their marketing materials or speak to their employees, their sales are in service of helping create a more sustainable planet. They see themselves as environmental activists as much as they do a clothing company. We see this same kind of leadership in Apple, Google, and Airbnb and many leading brands.
What advice would you offer to other leaders who are stuck in past playbooks and patterns and may be having a hard time letting go of what made them successful in the past?
My biggest piece is to follow the advice and approach my co-author and I outline in our book.. The world is changing so fast…we need to be more nimble and approach problems and solutions from many different vantage points. You can’t do that if you’re stuck in patterns from the past. The three step key we’ve devised to getting out of what we call your “self-reinforcing silo” and taking a different path are…
- Think Like a System. Understand your desired impact and how it fits in the bigger picture. Look around, be curious, notice patterns and trends. Figure out you fit into the world you are in but also how other worlds work too.
- Act Like a Network. Connect your work to others and find new collaborators. Get key people connected to other key people and co-create a new professional language together that mixes the best of all of your worlds.
- Lead Like a Movement. Bring collaborators together and move them in a unified direction. This is about creating a space to hold a diversity of opinion, multiple logics, and manage dissent. It’s definitely the most nuanced of the three, but leadership always is.
The most important thing about all of this is these are learnable skills. You don’t have to lead a movement to learn to take these steps to lead like a movement. Practice at your work and in your volunteer endeavors. Most of the skills we teach in the book are simple. We like to say they are “deceptively simple” though, because they definitely take practice and the bravery to step back and look at things in new ways.
Many of our readers can relate to the challenge of leading people for the first time. What advice would you offer to new and emerging leaders?
Stop networking and start building a network to help you accomplish the goals you want to achieve. Networking is a random activity of meeting people. Building a network requires thoughtfulness, time, and insight. You need to spend time really understanding what new skills and assets you need to accomplish the work you’re trying to accomplish. Once you truly understand those skills you can work to bring those people into your network who should have very different skills and approaches than you do.
Based on your experience or research, what are the top five traits effective leaders exemplify now? Please share a story or an example for each.
When we researched for our book, we looked in all corners for examples of leaders. Don’t limit yourself to idolizing famous people or thinking just about the best leaders in your industry or community.
- Effective leaders take a big step back, notice patterns and trends, and reframe them for a new way of seeing things. The California Lighting Technology Center (CLTC) is a great example of this. The CLTC’s goal is to accelerate the development and commercialization of energy-efficient lighting and daylighting technologies. Let’s face it, energy is boring. People want energy, lighting, heating, and air-conditioning, and they don’t want to think of the details. The CLTC has created powerful demonstrations of how upgraded hospital lighting can improve patient outcomes, how state-of-the-art lighting can save human lives in cities while saving dramatic amounts of energy, and how new lighting systems can help people feel safer on vast college and corporate campuses. This reframing has proven powerful for getting the new technology adopted.
- Effective leaders listen with empathy and reflection. Kristin Groos and Kirsten Tobey, two business school friends, built a for-profit food service start-up called Revolution Foods, initially focused on serving healthy school lunches. Rather than conducting national focus groups, they started by talking directly to the parents of children enrolled in local charter schools. They heard stories of frustration over the quality of the food, unresponsive bureaucracies, and kids going hungry because they didn’t want to eat the food served to them. Once the kids and parents realized that Revolution Foods was serious about observing and learning to make healthy food that kids liked, the buzz about them increased. Ultimately, Revolution Foods was able to land contracts in many large traditional school districts like Denver, Washington, DC, and San Francisco. Starting Revolution Foods in 2006 with serving food to kids in a few charter schools in Oakland, California, Groos and Tobey built a company that, as of 2022, serves over two million healthy meals to families and children in schools and communities throughout the United States.
- Effective leaders act as part of a whole. On the northern tip of San Francisco lies one of the most stunning pieces of land in North America, now managed by a wholly owned government corporation with a self-sufficiency mandate called the Presidio Trust. But before there was a trust managing a breathtaking national park, the land was an outdated and unused military base. The leaders working on the Presidio transformation saw it as much more than a national park site — they saw it as a cultural treasure important to the very soul of the country. They convened an influential group of civic and cor- porate leaders called the Presidio Council. The Presidio Council was active in lobbying to save the Presidio, researching models to ensure the sustainability and protection of the Presidio, and securing funds to pay staff and lobbyist costs. The Presidio Council included CEOs of major corporations, leaders of museums and cultural institutions, and executive directors of major environmental organizations. The group helped others see that the Presidio was much more significant than many perceived. They elevated it from a regional concern in the San Francisco area to being part of a whole movement of pre- serving cultural institutions. They moved the conversation away from discussing the Presidio as just one of hundreds of national park sites to viewing it as an iconic American place.
- Effective leaders integrate multiple logics. Given how common Airbnb has become, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that it started with a millennial wanting to earn money by renting an air mattress on his floor (the company was originally called Airbed and Breakfast). Now the company offers accommodations in over 34,000 cities and 191 countries and often transcends vast political and cultural divides insurmountable for traditional hotel brands. Of course, Airbnb embraces the logic of hospitality and adventure. That’s what you’d expect a hospitality company to do. More subtly on display here, in an industry known for creating uni- formity and perfectionism, they’ve built a culture that celebrates the individuality, even quirkiness, of each accommodation and the uniqueness of the individual hosts. Further, Airbnb has incorporated the logics of service and giving. They make us feel like we’re giving back to a culture (or a family) by staying with one of their hosts. It is not a surprise that their slogan is “belong anywhere.”
- Effective leaders manage dissonance. It won’t always be smooth sailing and innovation, especially when you are getting good at building a movement. Salix Pharmaceuticals and its founder Lorin Johnson, as an academic scientist with little track record in business or industry connections, needed to try new approaches to build a company. One formidable new area of learning was the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). So they decided that the best way to learn how to work with them was to make the FDA their first customer. And they learned “on the fly.” They “tell you what language they want you to speak,” Johnson told us, and they give you a checklist of things you have to have done. If you approach with bully tactics to push things through, they will just put you to the bottom of the pile. Sometimes you just need to work through the challenge. Johnson was able to build a relationship in which he showed he valued the FDA’s history and perspective. He recognized the FDA’s medical reviewers had an exceptional breadth of knowledge and there was no cutting corners to what they had to pace through to approve a drug.
American Basketball Coach John Wooden said, “Make each day your masterpiece.” How do you embody that quote? We welcome a story or example.
I am a lifelong learner. Each day is a masterpiece if you learn something. Believe me, I have days that completely drain me. I fall and I fail. Stop trying to be great and simply try to learn and grow.
What is the legacy you aspire to leave as a leader?
I’m interested in helping people unlock the vast potential that exists when you bring together business, government, and nonprofits to solve entrenched problems. So often we stay in our own silos of comfort — my mission is to break down these silos and help people see the potential for building unusual collaboration with extraordinary results. Let go of the stories we tell ourselves of mythical figure leaders and just get out and start making connections, You don’t need permission to lead.
How can our readers connect with you to continue the conversation?
Learn more about our book DontLeadAlone.com. We ask you at the end of the book to contact us with your own ideas and best practices about leadership. We are serious about that! Please do.
Thank you for giving us the opportunity to experience a leadership master at work. We wish you continued success and good health!
About The Interviewer: Karen Mangia is one of the most sought-after keynote speakers in the world, sharing her thought leadership with over 10,000 organizations during the course of her career. As Vice President of Customer and Market Insights at Salesforce, she helps individuals and organizations define, design and deliver the future. Discover her proven strategies to access your own success in her fourth book Success from Anywhere and by connecting with her on LinkedIn and Twitter.