What is leadership? This question is often asked during webinars, classes, and within organizations. Yet, each person has their own unique answer. In my experience growing up as a Quaker (Religious Society of Friends), leadership was focused on cooperation and consensus. Leaders within the Quaker community are regarded as equals, and their role as leaders is to present the consensus of the whole and follow through on action items. Within my Community Development Fellowship through the Schaffer Center for Public Policy at the University of Baltimore, I found that community organizations also utilize this cooperative and consensus-based approach.
Community organizations are in a leadership position. However, they are not there to decide what the community wants or needs but to act as an intermediary between the community and private and public entities to fulfill community needs.
Often we have this idea of leadership that replicates CEOs or other executives in the business world as portrayed in the media. Yet, even in those leadership roles, they are beholden to stakeholders to ensure the business operates in a lucrative and efficient manner.
Throughout my time at the University of Baltimore, I have had the opportunity to meet with and listen to leaders from various sectors, private, public, and non-profit. The consistent quality leaders speak about is the need for a team effort and the ability to listen to and hear the critique of their stakeholders to provide the best product, service, or programming they can with the resources available.
Some may think that being open to the needs and wants of stakeholders makes a leader weak or ineffectual, yet I argue that this is what makes a true leader. It is not about bowing to every demand or fulfilling every want and need but understand that desire exists within their stakeholder community. President Obama said, “…there will be people who disagree with you. They have different perspectives and points of view. They aren’t bad people because they disagree—they may have similar principles but simply disagree on the means to vindicate those principles. Compromise does not mean surrendering what you believe. It just means that you recognize the fact that these people who disagree with you have dignity and worth too. You have to hear them and see them.”
It is rare in this world to find two people who wholly agree on the importance, execution, and underlying cause of an issue, whether business, community, or governmental. Yet, as Obama eloquently states, their voices and opinions are valuable. I will expand by saying that those who disagree with you may have something important to teach. We, as humans, are susceptible to biases that we often do not even know exist. To listen to the opinions of others, whether we take their suggestions or not, allows us to open ourselves to learning something new, to look at a problem from a different perspective, and to allow others to present a solution we have not considered.
Additionally, hearing others, especially those who disagree with us, allows us to let them feel seen and heard. And if, in the end, we make a decision they disagree with, they know, at the very least, their opinion was not simply disregarded but considered. Being a leader sometimes means we cannot make all stakeholders happy, and some people will walk away from the table with disappointment. Yet, we can ensure that we are making the best decision not only based on research, best practices, and experience but also having weighed the opinions of those who may disagree with us. In the end, when even those ardent voices of dissent are considered, we can then know we have successfully found the right solution for the greatest number of stakeholders and lead with pride in a job well done and with the knowledge that we have strengthened trust among our community.
Alicia E. Ryan is 2022 initiate of the University of Baltimore Circle and is currently serving as the circle’s president. She is currently working as a fellow and program assistant with the Upton Planning Committee, Inc.