Great leadership includes the ability to write in a way that inspires and fosters teamwork. In collaboration with the Gotham Writers Workshop, students in the Kelley MBA Leadership Academy have produced a series of blog posts to demonstrate these skills.
The room had gone silent. Sixty people were suspended in a momentary limbo of uncertainty. Eric Johnson, Kelley School’s director of Graduate Career Services and the Leadership Academy, had just initiated a role-playing exercise focused on leadership coaching. Someone had to volunteer to ask the first question.
To us amateur coaches, a coaching discussion felt like trying to have a conversation backwards.
After a long pause with Eric scanning the room, I raised my hand and cautiously strung together some coherent words that loosely resembled a question. While Eric graciously revealed that my question wasn’t the ideal starting point, at least it kicked off the exercise.
I share this scene not to highlight the need for courage, but rather to highlight my extroversion, which leads me to think more after I speak instead of before – for better or for worse. Fortunately, this extroversion has actually been a critical factor in enabling me to successfully transition from being a follower to being someone that can lead, which in this case, meant speaking first.
I began to deeply internalize how my extroversion could enable my leadership when working with a team of four other Kelleys on a Business Marketing Academy consulting project for GE. I was surprised at meetings that my teammates didn’t always fit the stereotype of the “naturally chatty MBA.” I found myself being the first to speak at the start of and during transition points in our meetings. With time, this established me as the leader of the group.
However, I didn’t quite feel comfortable as the defacto leader. I always assumed that the leader had to be among the smartest in the group, and I was certainly not qualified to lead on the basis of relative IQ. My team had two engineers, an army helicopter pilot, and a director in a foreign government. Also, I did not have the strongest frame among the group. A person with a strong frame is so confident in their views that they end up explicitly or implicitly defining the dynamic of the interaction. Fortunately, I remembered some leadership guidance offered by a Kelley staff member during a Me, Inc. session:
“Superior intelligence is not required to lead. For someone who is well-organized like yourself, focus on establishing a strong process for the interaction and others will happily follow along given your methodological direction.”
This made a lot of sense to me. Everyone brings something to the table in a group interaction, and I happened to bring extroversion and organizational skills, both of which are ideal traits for project management, a leadership role. Since I felt confident that my process and road-mapping ideas would be sound, I leaned on these strengths to justify taking the lead on the consulting project. As I began to feel more comfortable taking the lead in group projects and class discussions, I no longer needed a reason to justify to myself that I am capable of leading.
Further, I realized my “going first” approach has also extended to leadership outside of a business setting.
Five years ago as I stepped out of a Washington, D.C. subway train and walked towards the end of the station platform, a fistfight broke out between a haggard, older-looking fellow and a peppy, insubordinate-seeming youth. While they pranced around in an imaginary circle right next to the track with fists lifted and primed, my first reaction was to look around, hoping, wishing, for someone else to do something. Then, I remembered learning about the bystander apathy effect, which describes the phenomenon of how people may hesitate to offer help to endangered people if others are around. Refusing to validate the theory, I dashed to the subway station kiosk and notified the attendant, who then notified subway security to break up the fight.
Whether it’s a stymied class discussion, a group project meeting, or even an exceptionally hazardous scuffle, I not-so-quietly acknowledge my extroversion and tell myself, “You! Go first.”