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Get ready for the “you’re it” moment

Growing into a meta-leader gives you the tools to skillfully manage any situation.

As a kid, you’re it was a designation in a game of tag. In that moment of becoming “it,” your perspective changed, your view of others shifted, and your strategy was instantly transformed. There was a physical and emotional shift. You were suddenly the center of attention. If you dreaded being “it,” this transition was unnerving. If you relished it, however, you felt a burst of adrenaline.

As a leader, you’re it has a differently nuanced meaning: You are responsible for more than just yourself. People are counting on you, from your subordinates to your boss, from your peers and collaborators to customers, suppliers, and perhaps even the general public. You guide and inspire the action. You gather and sift complex and contradictory information. You seek clarity. You craft a vision. You make decisions. It’s up to you to achieve success. If things don’t go well, you fail. Everyone is looking to you.

Just as in the game of tag, when you are “it,” your perspective and strategy must change. There is a task to achieve, a challenge to overcome. Your understanding of what is at your disposal and how to best leverage it needs to adapt quickly. You learn to think and see beyond the limited options on the table. You find alternatives that others haven’t. Then you figure out what has to be done and chart a path — along with others — to get there.

If you are a true meta-leader — someone whose passion and commitment motivate and engage others — you don’t shy away from being “it.” If you are part of a team, you are all “it” together. You leverage both the singular and plural meanings of you. You can be many people leading together. You will be ready when a crisis inevitably arrives. And when that happens, it will be up to you to pivot and lead.

The “you’re it” moment

Admiral Thad Allen, commandant of the United States Coast Guard, was due to retire in May 2010, ending a storied four-decade career with the service. Allen had risen through the ranks and weathered numerous crises along the way. Years earlier, President George W. Bush had asked him to assume command of one of the worst disaster management debacles of modern times: the Hurricane Katrina response. Time magazine called him “the hero of the Gulf” for his leadership.

If you are a true meta-leader — someone whose passion and commitment motivate and engage others — you don’t shy away from being ‘it.’

Late on the evening of April 20, in the Gulf of Mexico, an explosion ripped through the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig leased by BP. Eleven men lost their lives immediately. The explosion dislodged the pipe below the platform, which spewed oil and gas into the waters of the Gulf. Coast Guard crews responded to the fire on the drilling platform, and a regional response began. Leaders in the field soon sensed that this event might be bigger than just another rig accident. In the days that followed, those fears proved to be prophetic.

Ten days later, Allen’s home phone rang. It was Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, calling on behalf of President Barack Obama, to ask for his leadership. With the oil leak undiminished and the ecosystem imperiled, a political crisis was brewing.

The next day, Allen was named national incident commander for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill response. His job: Coordinate the many federal, state, and local government agencies involved and ensure that the legally designated “responsible party” — in this case, the party that did the drilling — took steps to clean up the mess. Allen became the public face of the massive effort.

“‘You’re it’ describes exactly how I felt,” Allen later said in an interview. “It was a crisis that demanded meta-leadership.”

Allen explained that the oil spill itself was the most straightforward part of the operation. The U.S. government had identified BP as the “responsible party.” Paradoxically, BP was both at fault and in sole possession of the knowledge and equipment needed to correct the situation. Meanwhile, elected officials in Washington and every governor along the coast, as well as local officials, wanted to show themselves to be protecting their constituents. They were pressing for fast resolution. On top of the political pressure, the media was primed to stoke emotions and to headline any missteps.

“In the midst of all that,” Allen recalled, “we had to figure out how to link everyone to get things done, [plug] a well 5,000 feet underwater…and [calm] political sensitivities. I was aware throughout that there was no guarantee that we would accomplish the hoped-for ending.”

The most troubling realization hit just as they were about to cap and seal the blown well head spouting oil. Scientists estimated a 20 percent chance that the compressed pressure of the surge might crack open the surrounding ocean floor, unleashing a colossal and uncontrollable mass of oil into the sea. Admiral Allen well understood that possibility and the limited actions he or anyone else could take to prevent the worst from happening. Allen was “it.” And so he led.

Influence beyond authority

Meta-leadership is a strategy and practice method designed to expand the impact of your leadership. It is both conceptually rigorous and intensely practical. It guides being, thinking, and doing.

Meta-leaders build an intentionally wide and deep understanding of themselves and the situations they face. They are curious. They develop a 360-degree, multidimensional perspective on the people around them and on their relationships with those people. Seeing connections and interdependencies everywhere, meta-leaders foster this same consciousness in those who follow them. With this understanding of the surrounding complexities, they have a long reach as they lead others to overcome challenges and seize opportunities.

Meta-leaders wield influence well beyond their formal authority. Not only do they understand the problem or opportunity itself: They grasp the different meaning it has for each of the many people involved. They weave together significant themes, clarifying overall purpose and values to keep an array of people aligned in synchronous motion. Those who follow meta-leaders discover that they are part of a mission and purpose larger than any one person or organization alone. It is inspiring to follow such a leader.

To lead means to have people follow you. For your followers, “you’re it.” But they are also part of “it” because they are with you. They are looking for a leader, and you can be that leader with or without a formal title or authority. People will follow you if they believe in you and in what you hope to accomplish — and if they have confidence that you believe in them.

Leading is more than just managing or commanding. Leadership is defined through behavior and attitude, not role or rank. Successful organizations large and small have leaders dispersed throughout the ranks and intentionally invest to develop those leaders throughout their careers.

Former Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent described it this way: “I learned that everyone has the innate capacity to lead. Leadership isn’t just a trait found at the very top of an organization. I have seen truly extraordinary leadership at all levels of our organization and from all types of people.” No matter where in your system you sit now, you can lead.

Is this daunting? Sure. The meta-leadership perspective helps you comprehend the whole of a leadership puzzle as well as its parts. These skills and the mind-set can be learned. Ultimately, you’ll be able to apply the principles of meta-leadership to your own circumstances and persona in a way that works best for you. It’s not a single set of prescribed steps. Think of it more as a way to better perceive yourself and what is happening around you; to more fully assess the meaning and implications of your leading; to more accurately identify patterns of activity and better predict what could happen next; and then to reach decisions and take action. You embed these proficiencies into your everyday leadership repertoire so that when you’re hit by crisis, change, or any other moment that matters, you are ready, like Admiral Allen, to pivot into action.

The three dimensions of meta-leadership

The discipline of meta-leadership has three dimensions: you the leader, the situation, and connectivity. You lead many stakeholders: those who report to you; others to whom you report; and all the other necessary individuals, entities, and partners over whom you may have little or no formal authority. Meta-leadership derives its strength from seamlessly weaving together these dimensions. And when “you’re it,” these three dimensions together are a rich resource.

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The first dimension of meta-leadership is you the person — you as the leader. How well do you know yourself? How do you make sense of all that surrounds you? How do you define yourself as a leader? What do you do as a leader, and what don’t you do? Your emotions come into play. Do you display emotional intelligence? What do you do about the emotions of others whom you lead? Can you exercise self-discipline in the ongoing task of seeking balance? When “you’re it,” events move rapidly, and everyone is counting on you. There is much to grasp, and many are in need of guidance. Being “it” is rarely easy, and yet it can be very rewarding.

The second dimension of meta-leadership is the situation — the objective reality of what is happening “out there.” The situation is the context and environment in which you must lead and in which you and others must face uncertain circumstances, demands, and dilemmas. When “you’re it,” you are handed a situation that, more often than not, is a bad one. You are expected to grasp and understand it in all its complexity. And then you’re expected to change that situation. Situations are often dynamic. There is much to accomplish, and time is usually of the essence.

The third dimension of meta-leadership is connectivity, which has four facets. Each facet has distinctive power and authority dynamics.

The four facets of connectivity

The first facet of connectivity is leading down — that is, directing and supervising others. Many leaders expect obedience and can’t figure out how to get it. Meta-leaders appreciate that to gain the commitment and loyalty of subordinates, they must first be committed and loyal to them.

When “you’re it” for people who call you “boss,” the first question should be, “How can I make each of you a success?” If the people you supervise succeed, then you are much more likely to succeed in what you’re all trying to accomplish together.

The second facet reverses this equation: Leading up refers to your own boss or the constituency to which you are responsible. If, like most people, you work in a hierarchical organization, it is clear who is boss. If you are an elected official, your bosses are hard-to-please voters. If you are a CEO, your bosses are the directors on your board, your company’s investors, and your customers.

The person or people you report to will have expectations for your performance. They have ways in which they would like to be treated and kept informed. They know what decisions they want to make and what decisions they prefer that you make on your own. Your job is not only to figure all this out. You must also intentionally influence and actively participate in the framing of the relationship. Influence well beyond your authority depends in part on your ability to persuade your boss, or bosses, to support you and champion what you hope to accomplish, leveraging their influence, decisions, and actions.

The third facet of meta-leadership connectivity is leading across to the departments, business units, and other parts within your institutional base. These are filled with people who operate within the same structure as you. Here, your intraorganizational efforts extend across different internal boundaries and functions. Each of these offices, departments, and functions, and each person within them, operates within a formally linked structure. In many organizations, there is some shared measure of control and authority as all involved presumably work toward common purposes. Despite that system, you may face specialized groups — such as people in innovation units, field operations, or legal functions — who prize autonomy over broad collaboration. Silo-based reward and recognition incentives foster rivalries that impede teamwork. Peers compete to rise within the hierarchy. And there are grabs for finite internal resources. You discover how to work — and sometimes fight — inside your castle walls to advance your objectives while respecting larger organizational goals.

Your first commitment is to the unit you lead or manage, even as you also contribute to company-wide activities. Your one piece of the bigger organizational picture contributes to the “meta-success” of your enterprise.

The fourth and final facet is leading beyond the four walls of your organization to reach the people, institutions, and communities that are part of or important to your overall endeavors. This is enterprise meta-leadership. The interorganizational meta-leadership challenge is to find or create a compelling common purpose among people not connected by the same formal reporting chain or governance structure.

The power and authority dynamics differ greatly between leading across and leading beyond. In leading across, the stakeholders are united by shared interests, including reputation, share price or other metrics, and allegiance to the same chief executive. That formal linkage is not present with those you lead beyond.

Leading beyond requires that you understand, respect, and acknowledge the legitimate interests of a variety of stakeholders. It’s important to build common purpose, leveraging your influence in the absence of authority over others.

In 2015, Paul Bulcke, then CEO of Nestlé and now chairman of the board, called for a broad, multi-stakeholder strategy for global nutrition and food security. In an opinion piece published by the World Economic Forum, he argued that collaboration is the only potential solution to a system-scale challenge that includes wide-ranging issues such as nutrition, healthcare, housing, and climate change. The stakeholders are governments, nonprofits, communities, and businesses, from massive global companies like Nestlé to small farmers. In his opinion piece, he committed Nestlé to playing a leadership role in that larger enterprise endeavor by providing “a robust framework for farmer livelihood and community development” as well as investment in rural education.

To coordinate the efforts of all these people is a profound challenge. Forging the collective “you” requires building connectivity of effort across many different sectors, leveraging influence well beyond whatever formal authority is invested in a single person or position.

Meta-leaders craft the unifying mission for an array of different constituencies. They build a compelling narrative and create conditions that animate shared values, motivating goals, and each participant’s view of himself or herself as a necessary and meaningful contributor. Meta-leaders know that optimal progress does not happen on its own. Someone must see the opportunity and engage others to see it as well.

Leading amid complexity

The most common and daunting leadership opportunities and challenges now arise amid the complex systems and networks of diverse organizations. Each organization accomplishes one piece of the product service or deliverable. Supply chains are global. It takes dozens of companies to piece together your smartphone. Organizations rely on contractors and outsourced vendors. Strategic alliances are common. Communication, commerce, and operations are increasingly conducted digitally. The many different organizations, people, and problems encompassed by these systems are not, by their very nature, calibrated to work together smoothly. This is why the concepts of connectivity and leverage are central to meta-leadership.

Although people and situations cannot always be controlled, they can be aligned into a productive order. This central idea of a widely cast net of connections is why we chose “people follow you” as the definition of meta-leadership. To illustrate, we return to the Gulf of Mexico and the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Admiral Allen had little choice. To prevail he would have to create a collective “you” out of the many people and organizations reluctant to see themselves on the same side.

When he stepped into his leadership role, there was much to overcome. The public was angry. Yet Allen couldn’t simply demonize and discount BP executives. He needed them as allies to help clean up the mess. Governors of the affected states, all Republicans, were fighting to snatch the finite protective resources being overseen by the Democratic Obama administration. The attitude was, “Get a boom on my shoreline.” In Louisiana, Plaquemines Parish president Billy Nungesser was among the vocal local leaders deriding the entire federal response, saying, “These guys have no clue and no ability to think outside the box.” He was a regular guest on the national news shows. The fishing and tourism industries lamented the millions of dollars of business they were losing every day. One local real estate broker called the spill a “sucker punch” as coastal property sales and rentals ground to a halt.

Even though Allen was “it,” he had to convince everyone who was part of or affected by the operation to see that they were critical to the solution as well. As a meta-leader, he needed to overcome the shortsighted belief that only he, the official national incident commander, could surmount all the problems involved in countering the oil spill. BP was both the legally designated “responsible party” and an ally to engage. Others who needed to be engaged were the governors, the local leaders, and the many federal agencies that were part of the mammoth response. Engaging all these people constructively was more vexing than the enormous engineering challenges involved in stopping the spill. These were the very people whom he needed within the collection of followers, and getting them to work together was the essence of the meta-leadership challenge.

Eventually Allen succeeded. The hole at the bottom of the Gulf was plugged, and the ecological damage, though significant, was more limited than it otherwise could have been.

Meta-leaders are distinguished by the passion and commitment they bring to their quest for meaning: It motivates and engages others. People follow leaders because they help in that search for meaning. It might be a political leader, a spiritual leader, a business leader, or an artistic leader. People rally behind these leaders even though the leaders may not pay their wages or supervise their work. Picture the leaders who inspire you and whom you follow. You believe in them and see your aspirations in theirs. You appreciate that they recognize your value. You do more than simply show up when such leaders motivate and acknowledge your efforts. You share and amplify their passion.

There is something extraordinarily fulfilling in following people who effectively and creatively shape solutions and who, at the same time, really care about those around them. Such leadership motivates performance and loyalty that exceeds any job description or evaluation. Meta-leading in this way is synergistically meaningful. It is satisfying in its accomplishments for the leader, and it is equally satisfying for the people who follow.

What can meta-leadership mean for you? Seek to find what others cannot. Galvanize your courage. Imagine. Dream. And then bring others along for the adventure. You’re it. It is time to lead.

Author profiles:

  • Leonard J. Marcus is the founding codirector of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative and an internationally recognized authority on leadership during times of crisis and change.
  • Eric J. McNulty is the associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative and an instructor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
  • Joseph M. Henderson is a distinguished senior fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a faculty member of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative.
  • Barry C. Dorn is a senior advisor of the Program for Health Care Negotiation and Conflict Resolution at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a faculty member of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative at Harvard.
  • From the book You're It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When It Matters Most by Leonard J. Marcus, Eric J. McNulty, Joseph M. Henderson, and Barry C. Dorn. Copyright © 2019 by Leonard J. Marcus, Eric J. McNulty, Joseph M. Henderson, and Barry C. Dorn. Reprinted by permission of PublicAffairs, New York, NY. All rights reserved.
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