Stepping Up to Improve a Situation, No Matter Who You Are

Katie Christie’s defines leadership as, “the pursuit of bettering whatever environment you are in.” Stepping up as form of leadership is a means anyone can use to offer their wisdom and support no matter what their role in a group. I have become curious about cultures that foster team members to step up to the plate and take a swing at offering suggestions. How do groups of people respond to unknown situations and solve problems together? When do team members sit back and wait for someone else to create a solution or a direction? When do team members notice something that can be done to improve the situation and do it? How do team members enroll each other in possibilities?

Stepping up while supporting the leader

When there is an explicitly recognized leader, stepping up can be a balancing act of supporting the leader’s ideas and offering refactoring that benefit the group’s shared vision. I recently attended a user group for developers where the speaker failed to show up without notice. The group organizer was busy finding an alternate speaker who could patch in via the internet. This effort was riddled with challenges. Several people did stand up to help him with the technological challenges of establishing remote video connectivity. During that time most people in the room waited. Waiting was an appropriate form of support to the leader, because it gave space for the leader to follow his established vision, and at the the same time, allow a few to work on the resolution.

Stepping up by leading the group out of the box

After some time, leader announced that they could not solve the technological problems to support a remote speaker. At this moment, things became interesting because the direction forward was unclear. The people in the room kept their thoughts to themselves, their eyes on their devices, and their bodies in their chairs.

Stepping up with a sense of possibility about how to improve the situation could look like showing openness in facial expression or showing an attitude of “being available” for finding a different solution. Stepping up by leading the group into territory that was out of the box of the established plan might have looked like offering suggestions or being actively present with each other.

Maybe attendees could not see a possibility of improving the situation. Or maybe they were searching within themselves for a better answer. Either way, they did not try to invite others to work with them on a solution.

I wanted to see if we could evolve the session into an interesting conversation amongst the more than 30 people in the room, even without a speaker. I said to the people next to me, “maybe we could figure out a way to have a conversation.” Just when it seemed there would be no response, the person next to me supported the idea, saying we could have an ad hoc conversation. When we offered this thought directly to the group leader, the two of us were met with silence. The group facilitator did not take hold of these ideas, perhaps because he was thrown off balance by the inability to get a speaker connected. So, we kept quiet for a while.

Not willing to give up, after some time, I asked the person next to me, “What could we say to the facilitator to help him understand what we have in mind by having an ad hoc conversation?” This was my effort to continue to hold space for a solution to emerge without pushing for a particular one. The person next to me said, “That’s a good question,” and was inspired to ask the entire group what level of experience people had. His polling question broke the ice and engaged several people to respond. Because he felt he had something he could share to benefit at least some people in the room, he got up to share what he knew on the topic and described how his team was using the technology.

This experience illustrated to me some of the leadership qualities in a culture of leaning into “the possibilities,” such as acting on insights to improve the situation, showing openness to bouncing ideas around, being actively present and attentive to a group, being available to offer support to others, asking questions that enable people to engage, and a willingness to share.