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What makes a Leader? A research journey seeking to understand what it takes to be a leader today

Updated: Jul 6, 2023

What makes a leader?

Recently, I was working as a teacher (an adjunct, to be precise) with undergraduate students in the Project, Design, and Analysis program at UNT at Frisco. The idea behind the program is for the students to work with industry partners (non-profit and for-profit businesses outside of academia) to help them to reach design goals or solve problems using Design Thinking. The program focuses on the students engaging in project-based learning, by using the classes that they’re enrolled in to work through their projects. Design Thinking (very generally) is a process used in industry today to work through more ambiguous, human-centered problems. This applied approach to education helps the students to experience real-world challenges in a guided manner, so that they can develop the skills they will need to pursue their career goals.


During this past semester, some of the students began working with a non-profit industry partner known in the North Texas area for being quite successful in completing tasks, or on delivering the services and community engagement that they say they will. Through this delivery, people have noticed the non-profit's earnest use of grant money and funding. By utilizing resources in direct and practical ways which benefits the community, the community's faith in their efforts are reenforced.


As we were visiting on location a few weeks ago, a fellow professor commented about the difference leadership can make to success. This led me to the question I’ve been turning over ever since:


What makes a leader?


This has been an important question to consider at many points in our history, but especially now. Looking to the current state of society and the multiple social and economic problems throughout the world, the need for leaders is apparent. It seems to me that to make a change in the way things are, we are going to need leaders who can remain trusted and deliver on their goals, while thinking critically through all the chaotic events that have come to make up daily life.

As an anthropologist, I quite literally study humans. Anthropologists in the U.S. have a four-field foundation; human history (archaeology), human evolution and biology (biological anthropology), language (linguistics), and culture (cultural anthropology). One of the hallmarks of humanity, that anthros like to talk about quite a bit, has been our ability to adapt. Human adaptability isn’t just understood in our biology, but in our creativity, our critical thinking, and our ability to work together as a community, which all combines into us creating adaptations to the environment so that we can survive.

Looking into the ancient past, we see evidence in our archaeological record that making fire, clothing, and shelter helped us to move into latitudes with colder climates. That may seem obvious, but the point here is that it wasn’t our bodies adapting that made this migration possible, it was our brains finding ways to adapt and change the objects in our environment to create a solution.

There are also gargantuan endeavors in our less ancient past which we know took quite a bit of creativity, critical thinking, and community coordination. The Pyramids of Giza, the Great Wall of China, the Moai on Easter Island, and many other ancient monuments are wonders today. In part, because we can only guess at the true effort that went into their making. In anthropology, we say that the presence of monuments denotes the presence of a differentiated society, or a society with different roles for different people. We infer this because something of that magnitude not only requires great amount of community coordination, but also a leader or leaders who can understand and envision how all the moving parts and people can work together to create the vision.


That same need for leadership holds true today, and is arguably much greater. The problems that we face in society today are referred to as wicked problems, or problems with have real-world constraints which are difficult, or may even be impossible, to solve. A wicked problem that I am somewhat obsessed with is food, or the food system (systems?) in the United States. If you think about all the interrelated problems in food, considering any solutions can be overwhelming.


Here's a brief list of areas of challenge within the U.S. food system:

  • Access to healthy, fresh, and culturally appropriate foods

    • Nutritionally dense foods are less available than high-calorie foods

    • Rates of type II diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and other diet-related illness

  • Farming

    • Structural racism in agricultural funding and food sovereignty

    • Agricultural practices impacting the environment

    • Treatment of farm workers

    • Animal welfare

  • Food production and supply

    • Processing chains

    • Treatment of processing plant workers

    • Waste in the supply chain

    • False shortages

  • Food service and treatment of food workers

    • Nutritional standards

    • Food packaging

    • Food waste

  • Coordinating regional food systems

    • Food justice

If it seems overwhelming, then it should make sense why it's referred to as a wicked problem. With these problems in society today, we don’t only need people who want to think about solutions and how we can get there, we need people who can lead us to the solutions.


I know that I feel this need for leadership just about every time I think about these social problems. Judging from the sentiment I have heard from many people around me, I’m not the only person searching for leaders. This question of what makes a leader is an important thing for us to consider. It’s an important idea to focus on and amplify right now. I’d like to find leaders to interview so that I can do more research into this idea. While I know a few people who I will be asking to participate, I’d like your help finding more. If you know a leader who you think offers some of the leadership skills that we need in the world today, please reach out to me at whatmakesaleaderblog@gmail.com


 

What makes a leader?

I have always been a person who critically questioned leadership. Not from a standpoint of wanting to cause chaos or thwart the efforts of the person in charge, but to understand how the person in charge views leadership and what their purpose is in leading.


I have encountered leaders who fundamentally changed my way of looking at the world through their guidance. My best example of a leader who made an impact on my life is a lady I knew while working at a motorcycle part distributor, my former boss in Sales Support, who was really a friend and mentor. Out of respect in not knowing if she'd mind me mentioning her by name, I'll just refer to her herein as MC Boss.


The company that I worked at was a place I worked off and on through my young adult years, as I left Texas and moved back. When I was pregnant with my oldest, Rory, I worked there. Through my younger days of marriage, divorce, being a single mother, and the real and constant struggle to survive, I worked there. MC Boss wasn’t originally my boss; she was a diligent and intimidating VP of Inside Sales who was known for making the tough decisions no one else really wanted to, and then working hard to deliver on those decisions. While I was working in customer service, MC Boss reached out to promote me as one of her assistants in sales support. That was how I originally got into marketing.


I worked as a sales support administrator for several years. I coordinated sales programs, product launches, B2B newsletters, managed the company sales pages online, and worked to provide event flyers and assistance to all the sales reps there. I did this through interacting with the sales force, the art department, product line managers, and marketing managers. In sum, I worked across departments to offer sales support. Throughout those years, MC Boss guided me in my work – both in the actual work I was doing and in understanding and thinking about the interactions I had with others and how to best approach those interactions.


In the beginning, there were a few times that I made mistakes. Pretty big mistakes, to be honest. Mistakes that cost our company a loss in sales or shipping. MC Boss probably could have fired me for one or two of those mistakes. She knew that I knew. She also knew that I was trying to be the ‘everything-employee’ - who did all the things for all the people all the time. I think she blamed my inability to say ‘no’ to a task for those mistakes, not my work ethic, the things I produced, or my behavior. As we worked together more, I came to rely on MC Boss to protect me from my tendency to always take on more work, and to guide my career path within the business, to have the greatest impact and enjoyment from my work.


Unfortunately, this fantastic work environment that I had found with MC Boss as my manager was only a temporary phase in life. One of the hardest parts of remembering those times, and the great impact that MC Boss had on my life, is that she passed away too soon. Her loss was felt across the industry by many of us. She was my boss, but really and truly she was my mentor and friend. And, in many ways, she guided me through some of the roughest days I have ever had to weather. I will be forever thankful to her for truly seeing me and all of the qualities I bring to the table, and valuing and protecting me.


Without MC Boss, the environment that I flourished within was non-existent, and my desire to pour myself into my work was met with quite a few different, competing interests. While I continued to work at the motorcycle parts distributor, I took on more and more responsibilities, with not much of a chance to develop a plan for my future, or even plan for the next few months of work responsibilities. What was once an exciting environment of planning and brainstorming becoming strained and hectic.


Through all these changes, and through meeting Rich and being given the opportunity to pursue other avenues, I decided to leave the motorcycle parts distributor once again, to pursue a degree in cultural anthropology. I always knew, even when times were the toughest, that when things got better I wanted to find ways to develop my skills in being curious and appreciating different ways of thinking to become someone who can work to help others.


In my quest to understand What makes a leader? I think it's only right that I first think about MC Boss. Her way of seeing me and the strengths that I brought to the table, despite my rougher edges, led to a great work environment where we found the way to enjoy our work while accomplishing our goals and we made great strides in putting together some awesome launches. I wonder what MC Boss might think if she were to see me now. I know that I would want to interview her, to understand more about her drive and purpose.


I think that she might even let me.


If you know of a leader in your area who might want to participate in my research into What makes a leader?, please contact whatmakesaleaderblog@gmail.com


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