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Survey shows how Kansans have put leadership ideas to use

Readers help The Journal reflect on 10 years of experience with the four competencies.

Ten years ago, the inaugural edition of The Journal printed the very first article outlining the Kansas Leadership Center’s four competencies of leadership. To celebrate the anniversary, the magazine asked readers to complete a survey in February describing their experiences using those ideas.

More than 1,000 readers responded. Their answers provide insights into how alumni of KLC programs have used the competencies, where they’ve struggled and succeeded, and how KLC’s leadership framework might be adapted to address more situations.

This exercise in participatory journalism brought in answers I expected to see as well as ones that surprised me. And it also raises deeper questions about what the patterns reflected in the survey mean and how to improve the exercise of leadership using these ideas throughout the state, country and world.

It’s interesting to note that the largest portion of respondents to the survey were relatively recent graduates. About 37 percent of those who completed the survey indicated they had first learned KLC leadership ideas in 2017, 2018 or 2019. The next-largest group was the 28 percent who had first learned the ideas in 2014, 2015 or 2016.

Just 17 percent indicated that they had been introduced to KLC ideas from 2011–13, while nearly 18 percent dated their first exposure to 2008-10, the time period when KLC first began offering in-person leadership classes.

Following are some of my key takeaways from the survey.

The survey asked readers to describe which competencies they use the most often, allowing them to select up to four. Manage Self, a competency that calls for increasing one’s self-awareness and working beyond internal comfort zones, was reported to be the most commonly used KLC leadership idea. It was followed by Diagnose Situation, a skill that asks people to look before they leap into action by assessing the adaptive aspects of the challenges they are facing.

The leadership skills of Manage Self and, to some degree, Diagnose Situation can be internal processes, meaning that users can perform them on their own without having an exchange with others. Competencies that require interpersonal interaction were less frequently used. Nearly a third reported using Energize Others, which encourages people to get others involved, especially people who aren’t usually included. Slightly more than a quarter reported using Intervene Skillfully, the art of taking leadership actions that lead to progress, the most.

Only a handful of respondents, a little more than 1 percent, report that they never use the competencies.

The answers to question No. 2 provide additional data. Intervene Skillfully ranks as the most challenging of the competencies, according to readers, followed by roughly equal numbers who find Manage Self and Energize Others the most difficult. Only about 16 percent find Diagnose Situation the most difficult, while nearly 6 percent say none are most challenging.

Taken together, the results of both responses are intriguing. Why does intervening skillfully stand out as a skill that’s both challenging and less used? Are there ways to make it easier or less daunting for you and those around you to practice leadership interventions more often with less pressure?

More than three-quarters of respondents report using the language of KLC’s leadership competencies with others on at least a monthly basis. The largest percentage, nearly 38 percent, report doing it weekly.

While a much smaller percentage reports using the language daily, the responses suggest that learning KLC ideas impacts the vocabulary alumni use with others. Respondents don’t just keep the competencies to themselves as they use them, they regularly reference them in their conversations with colleagues.

When KLC teachers and staff talk to organizations, they often hear that one of the benefits of KLC training is that it gives groups a common language with which to discuss their leadership challenges and the actions necessary to respond to them. The results suggest that people who learn KLC ideas are often finding places where using such language is accepted as part of the culture; perhaps they are often discussing these ideas with other KLC alumni.

Based on my reading of the data, though, alumni aren’t overdoing it either. They seem to be using KLC ideas with others in moderation. They aren’t constantly beating people over the head with them, but most often are acting practically, choosing when it’s useful for them to do so. To me, that level of integration helps keep KLC ideas from becoming jargon or from reinforcing a subculture that only communicates well with other people who speak the language.

One question: How does someone know when to use the language with others, when to rephrase it or when to not use it at all? Are there best practices for sharing the leadership language with others, especially those who haven’t had KLC training?

When KLC’s competenices were first introduced, they were framed around their usefulness for civic leadership, meaning work on community challenges where nobody’s fully in charge. In the 10 years since the initial article about them, though, the competences have been extensively used in work environments.

The largest portion of respondents indicated they use KLC ideas most often at work as managers; the next largest reports using it most often at work as employees. That suggests that the competencies can be profoundly useful for exercising leadership in business and organizational life. And some people take these behaviors everywhere they go – a third of respondents indicate they use the competencies in all their roles and situations.

The applicability of the competencies to work doesn’t necessarily suggest they aren’t being used extensively in civic life. After all, some organizations that KLC works with blur the lines between work life and civic life.

Making progress at their work also means making progress on a civic challenge. Plus, 31 percent of all respondents indicate they use KLC ideas on a volunteer board or committee. Another 20 percent use them on a challenge in their communities. That’s a substantial amount of energy being directed into local civic engagement activities that’s at least equal to the use of KLC ideas at work.

Much smaller numbers of people report using KLC ideas in a government role, on a statewide issue or on an issue of national concern. And perhaps that’s to be expected. After all, it’s probably natural for people to exercise leadership in the places where they spend most of their time and energy. But as the ranks of KLC alumni grow, it might be fitting to ask what the possibilities would be if more KLC graduates thought globally – or regionally or statewide – as they continued to act locally.

As complicated as leadership can be to practice, readers aren’t encountering a lot of situations where KLC leadership ideas aren’t helping them move forward. Nearly nine out of 10 survey respondents say they haven’t encountered a leadership challenge where the framework didn’t help them make more progress. Since leadership on adaptive challenges is very much about trial and error a lot of the time, that might be a telling endorsement of the usefulness of KLC’s ideas.

When use of the competencies falls short, it’s usually for one of four reasons, respondents wrote. The most common barrier is other people not accepting, understanding or responding to the use of KLC leadership ideas. It’s difficult when those you’re trying to work with just don’t buy in.

Less frequently, the problem is about the length of time the process takes. People become impatient or feel pressure to not engage in adaptive work, opting for a quick fix instead.

It’s also difficult when the competencies conflict with the preferred management approach of a boss who’s either unwilling or doesn’t appreciate the importance of giving the work back. Finally, some survey respondents say there are certain contexts – politics, churches, the Legislature, dynamics dealing with race, culture and class were mentioned – where they found it difficult to make progress with the framework.

If there are places where the competencies fall short, most respondents aren’t experiencing it. When asked to imagine a mythical “fifth competency,” the vast majority of readers either weren’t sure what it would be or didn’t see a need for one. Many said in their experience the existing four competencies have been comprehensive.

A few respondents did identify some gaps. Some common suggestions that emerged were being persistent over the long haul, emphasizing follow-up steps, taking time to reflect and evaluate, dealing with race and class issues, supporting others, improving communication and storytelling, taking a historical perspective and addressing the spiritual side of leadership. But there wasn’t a dominant theme that emerged in the responses.

One question the survey did not ask is whether readers are seeing the progress they want to see. My guess is that even many successful alumni have leadership challenges where they would like to be seeing bigger gains. (I know I have plenty of situations of my own where that’s the case.) So if the framework itself is solid, what then are the ingredients that will be necessary to help individuals do even more?

To conclude the survey, The Journal asked readers to describe the biggest success they have had using the KLC competencies. Nearly 44 percent of readers responded by describing specific situations where the competenices had worked best for them.

The dominant theme running through these responses was the idea that the competencies had helped them more effectively work with other people, be it with their team inside a company, on a civic issue, or as a teacher or trainer in a classroom. The success was found not just in what they did, but in how others responded to their leadership interventions in ways that led to progress.

Another large group, about 29 percent, focused on changes in their behaviors or ways of thinking since learning the competencies. They talked about how they’d gotten better at managing themselves or gained the confidence to try new things. Or about how the concepts diagnosing situation or engaging unusual voices had influenced them to see things differently. Many did not have specific success stories they wanted to relate, but they believed the changes they had experienced were a success in their own right.

However, there was also a significant number of respondents – about 25 percent – who indicated they either had no success story to share or chose not to share it. I personally found the number of people who didn’t have a story surprisingly numerous, although perhaps I shouldn’t have. Many of these respondents are among KLC’s most recent graduates, having first learned KLC ideas in 2017, 2018 or 2019. One possibility is that many of them are still learning and have not had time, as some explained, to really experience something they consider a success.

However, it wasn’t just recent graduates that didn’t relate a success story. A fair number of early alumni also passed on sharing something. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s why we gave readers the option of sharing their story and keeping their story confidential if they wished.

More than 150 people not only shared their stories, they also expressed a willingness to share their experiences in the pages of The Journal. We’re woefully short of space here to do everyone’s tale justice, but we are providing quotes from about 20 of the respondents. We’re grateful for their willingness to share. Hopefully, in the months and years to come, the survey will inspire additional stories that readers will see published in The Journal.

The Journal, after all, is primarily a storytelling vehicle. It seeks to elevate the good, the bad and the ugly about exercising leadership on tough challenges in this state and beyond. It aims to provide accurate and trustworthy information, and, in the process, shape civic culture to be a riper place for vibrant democracy, thoughtful debate and leadership for the common good.

However, there are plenty of stories worth telling that won’t ever appear in the pages of The Journal. And those stories of leadership need to be told too, somehow, someway. They don’t have to be grand or impressive to matter. They don’t need to be complemented by glossy photos or big headlines. But they do need to be shared by the people in a position to tell them, whether it’s in a tweet, a Facebook review or a confidential email to staff.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway I have from this survey is just how many people haven’t just learned KLC’s ideas over the past 10 years but are out there actively using them. Putting them into practice and learning from their successes and failures. They are people from a variety of different backgrounds, working in different contexts who have an array of beliefs, all bound by a desire to harness the same leadership ideas to help themselves and others do better.

There’s a great, collective story that we should all have a role in telling.

A version of this article was originally published in the Spring 2019 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit klcjr.nl/1yrgiftsub.

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