Leading from the fringe: Part one

Then she began, nearly out of nowhere, to write (Barbara Kellerman, 2010, 122).

Is it possible to change the world from the margins, from nowhere, when one is lacking in positional or legitimate power?

For the next several blog posts, I will be sharing personal essays about my experience as a collaborative non-hierarchical leader. Approximately a year ago, it dawned on me that one of the more effective strategies for being a non-hierarchical person of influence (co-leader) is to position myself as a writer and thought leader. I discovered a number of historical role models in Barbara Kellerman’s book Leadership: Essential Selections on Power, Authority, and Influence. (Kellerman, 2010).

The idea of influencing the world through writing is not new for me. In high school and college I had dreams of someday being a writer — a poet, playwright, or writer of nonfiction. It was not a practical pursuit; it was the stuff of childish dreams. A voice in my head told me, I was not really a writer.

There was some minor evidence to the contrary. In high school, I won a scholarship for writing a Voice of Democracy speech. Later, my college professors complimented me on my writing, and on my speeches. These accolades bounced off, unable to penetrate a negative self-image. I was just a small town girl, a nobody from nowhere.

In my last year of undergraduate studies I changed my major from Interpersonal Communications to Business Administration/Accounting, and I passed the rigorous exam to be a Certified Public Accountant. I was not a writer, but I was smart enough to be an accountant and that was a more practical choice.

Although I was not a writer, I did enjoy amazing opportunities for a variety of fascinating leadership roles. In my late twenties I was CFO of a $3.5 million multi-specialty medical practice, supervising over 30 employees and managing a multi-million dollar construction project. Then I became the first woman and one of the first dozen Certified Financial Planners in Montana. That led to an appointed position as Deputy Commissioner of Securities for Montana. I served on two national committees to develop the early consumer protection regulations for the Financial Planning industry.

After a few years, I moved on to a role as CEO of a nonprofit economic development finance organization and a Montana based social venture capital company. I received national and state recognition for my role as a leader in promoting financial alternatives for small businesses. A large part of my work was public presentations before small and very large groups. During the years I worked with rural entrepreneurs, I was considered a national leader in empowering rural entrepreneurs to overcome obstacles to their success.

As I traveled throughout the nation, I loved shattering the prejudices I faced from urban elites. Often their first thoughts were that powerful ideas could not originate from rural outposts like Montana. I discovered I could be a leader from the fringes — from a remote rural place like Montana.

Its a remarkable conceit: the idea of changing the world simply by sitting and writing (Kellerman, 2010, 118).

Is there any real power in communicating through the written and spoken word?

The sense that I was called to be a writer was nagging at me. In my late thirties I began a daily practice of writing in my private journal.

I went through a phase of intense and deepening spiritual growth. My leadership roles were increasingly in formal religious communities. I gradually came to believe my long-standing call to write and speak was a call to be a Christian Minister. Seeking ordination was a path to being a “legitimate” leader within the Church. My three years in seminary was a time of rediscovering my love for reading and writing. I started to dream again, this time of being a writer and a preacher.

Though he himself was without power, authority, or influence, he had the temerity to stand up to, and inveigh against, those more richly endowed (Kellerman, 2010, 131).

My first job as a Pastor (clergy) was with a small church in a conservative rural community. Every week I would put many hours into planning worship and writing my sermons. I discovered that communication is a very powerful form of leadership — both written and oral. There was an amazing amount of individual and communal transformation that occurred during my one year. And then it was over.

The higher “legitimate” authority, The Bishop, made a decision to end my career as a Pastor, and he had all the power and authority to do that. It made no difference that my ministry was producing fruits, it all came down to submitting to his absolute authority.

I discovered that real leadership is realizing when you have the power to choose your own path, regardless of legitimacy or positional authority. Followers can become leaders, and when they do, leaders loose some of their power.

(Six part essay to be continued).