Grassroots Leadership Development

That somewhat ponderous title, Grassroots Leadership Development, is a really powerful concept.  The W. K. Kellogg Foundation has produced a guide for grassroots leaders, support organizations, and funders.  The Grassroots Leadership Development Guide is available as a PDF file download.

You are invited and encouraged to read, use, and pass on this Guide. It was written because of a strong belief that nurturing and supporting grassroots leaders and their organizations is central to sustaining our democracy and to encouraging healthy, vibrant communities throughout the world.

These thoughts were triggered by an article by John Baldoni (Leadership at Work) entitled, What You Can Learn about Leadership from Jay Leno.  John Baldoni might be called the Leadership Guru and has written extensively on these matters.

Jay Leno brought his act, called the “Comedy Stimulus Show,” to the Motor City for two shows this week; tickets were free. A car enthusiast, as well as a collector, Leno has long exhibited a kinship with this blue collar city. “This is one of the great industrial cities,” Leno told his audience. “This is a city that actually makes a product.”

John Baldoni felt that Jay Leno’s way of doing things is a good one for leaders to follow. He felt that there were three actions that Leno does that leaders can use to inject some levity into the workplace.  These were his recommendations:

Point out absurdity.
Leno is a master at satirizing everyday reality. People can be hysterically unaware about history and current events. Same applies to the workplace. We all operate on assumptions that someone else makes the coffee, buys the doughnuts and brings all the snacks.
Lampoon hypocrisy.
Face up to the double standard perceived by automakers who feel that those on Wall Street have been bailed out while those in Detroit have been put out. In corporate terms, this duality plays out when bosses reduce bonuses while employees reduce salary. There are always dichotomies between what we say and what we do.
Take the high and mighty down a peg.
Start with yourself. Make it safe for people to make light of your shortcomings. If you tell a joke on yourself, you ease the tension in the room, especially when people are feeling uptight about work and their place in it.

And as with all things humorous, tread carefully.  Avoid jokes that lampoon gender and ethnicity; if you suspect a joke may be taken the wrong way, act on that assumption and don’t use it.

The point of humor in the workplace is not telling jokes; it is to lighten the mood.  A leader’s job is to make the work continue. It is up to leaders to keep people focused. Reminding them of their humanity through laughter is a good way to do it.

That’s all good as far as it goes.  Having a more pleasant atmosphere in the workplace and knowing the boss is just a regular guy must make something better.  However if that is all that’s involved, I believe it misses a great opportunity. 

Grassroots leadership could be seen as something that is left to the grassroots, as the Grassroots Leadership Development Guide mentioned earlier might imply.  Another recent Jay Leno interview points to a different concept of Grassroots Leadership.  That was the interview with Barack Obama.

It’s not just having an atmosphere that confirms the leader is a regular guy. That still leaves the leader as leader and the rest of the organization as followers going wherever their leader dictates. 

There is a different way of operating. It is to set up the organization and operate it in a way that supports and relies on the  grassroots leaders at all levels of the organization.  It is counting on the results that the followers will achieve if given their heads as leaders.  Here are some of the steps involved in making such grassroots leadership work.

  1. Having clear goals for all parts of the organization
  2. Providing the resources that grassroots leaders need
  3. Having mutual respect and giving people space to get results
  4. Measuring performance and expecting improvements
  5. Rewarding success

The items that John Baldoni found worthwhile in Leno’s performance are necessary to achieving grassroots leadership, but they are not sufficient.  The leader must walk the walk on the 5 steps just listed. 

Unfortunately such behaviour is very much the exception rather than the rule.  Only the really exceptional organizational leaders are capable of maintaining the effort that is needed.  That is true Grassroots Leadership Development.

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