Courtney Lynch is a lawyer, a leadership coach, a former Marine and one of three authors of the book, “SPARK: How to Lead Yourself and Others to Greater Success,” that argues employees can have influence in the workplace without a management title. In an interview with Tom Fox, Lynch provided examples to back up her thesis, discussed lessons she learned from her military service and what it takes to develop leaders. Fox is a guest writer for On Leadership and the vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
The central tenant of your book is that anyone can inspire change in an organization, regardless of their title. Can you explain this concept?
We talk about leadership, but not from a position of power, prestige, notoriety, seniority or that fancy corner office. We distill leadership down to the ability of anyone in an organization to do two things very well — influence outcomes and inspire others regardless of where they are on the organization chart.
Can you give me an example?
I just finished a wonderful project with a manufacturing organization, one of the largest popsicle manufacturers in the world. One of the front-line leaders on the midnight shift figured out a way to pack their product more efficiently and with less opportunity for contamination. That one person was able to do something that saved the company money and made their product safer. Everyone at every level has an opportunity to contribute, but as individuals we have to choose to lead even if we are not in a position of authority.
Do you have another example?
I was facilitating a workshop recently with an IT organization and there was a younger, newer manager who was in the course. In her work, she took initiative to do the things that needed to be done and she spoke up very clearly and constructively about what needed to change. Being such a strong performer in her own role, she was influencing standards and performance expectations for people a couple of roles above her. When there was an opening, she was promoted. She wasn’t seeking a promotion. She was leading by meeting standards, and clearly communicating when something seemed a bit off. This organization has a lot of cumbersome processes, and she consistently suggested new ways to streamline what they were doing.
Suppose you are eager to have an impact, but feel constrained by a poor leader?
We seek leadership. When we’re not getting it, we can become angry, resentful, frustrated or even passive aggressive. The first thing is to not check out. You have to recognize it for what it is – you have a poor manager. This is probably not a bad person you’re working with. I’ve met a lot of people who have underdeveloped leadership skills, but they have good intentions. Don’t take it personally, but be realistic. Recognize that you still can add value to the team and seek to maintain the highest integrity in your performance.
The Marine Corps has a reputation for developing exceptional leaders. What was your experience?
The military is hands-down one of the best leadership academies. You are given significant responsibility at an early age. When people are loaded with responsibility early in their career, they become more resilient, their brain is hard-wired to take on bigger and better challenges later in life. I benefitted tremendously from the opportunity to serve in the Corps.
What are some of the leadership lessons you learned in the Marines that could be adapted by federal agencies?
A specific lesson that is most transferable is accountability. Individuals are taught not to deflect when a problem happens, but to own it, see your weak spots, admit your self-defeating behaviors, and then move past it and work on solving the problem. I think that we often think of accountability as finger-pointing or who are we going to blame, when it’s really about resolving problems.
What do people fail to understand about leadership?
People spend thousands of hours developing their technical skills. They might get higher degrees or gain new certifications. There’s almost a false sense that when I’m promoted, I’ll just be a leader. Leadership is behavioral development and understanding that I have to be credible, I have to meet and exceed standards. I need to have the sense of service and I have to proactively do things that add value to other people. I need to be accountable when I’ve made a mistake. We often find ourselves working with someone who hasn’t had a chance to learn, test and develop these fundamental leadership skills.
How should federal agencies and other organizations cultivate future leaders? Is it formal education, mentoring, coaching or all the above?
My suggestion would be leadership development for all. It’s creating a culture where everyone has the opportunity to influence outcomes and inspire others, and everyone can develop the people skills just like they develop their technical skills. I think about 10 percent of the program should be done in the classroom, 20 percent through informal coaching and mentoring, and 70 percent coming through low-risk opportunities where individuals can develop their skills and are allowed to be successful. Those with more authority and a bigger scale to their work might be given more of an intensive learning experiences.