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Bush Foundation’s Lars Leafblad on leadership: from ‘top down’ to ‘around’

A new ethic of connectivity, consensus and compromise is struggling to be born — and Lars Leafblad has some ideas on how we can all help it happen.

Lars Leafblad joins the Bush Foundation as head of leadership starting in February.
Photo by Bill Kelley

The Line first talked with Lars Leafblad back in 2011 focusing on Minnesota’s self-image and how the state might redefine itself to remain competitive and attractive in the 21st century. When Leafblad, a principal of the headhunting firm KeyStone Search, was tapped to head the Bush Foundation‘s leadership program this month, we thought that it was high time we reconnected with a leader who’s been called the most connected man in the Twin Cities — to talk about the kind of leadership we need now, in Minnesota and the nation.

The Line: Lars Leafblad, tell us what you will be doing when you move over to the Bush Foundation in February.

The Line

Lars Leafblad: I’m excited, I’m honored, and I’m grateful for the chance to be joining the Bush Foundation next month.  My role will be their head of leadership, reporting to Jennifer Reedy, the president of the Bush Foundation. I’ll be working with the Advancing Solutions team. Building on the 60 years of Bush’s work investing in people, programs and partners in Minnesota, North and South Dakota, and the 23 Native Nations sharing that geography.

The Line: What lessons about leadership have you learned from being an executive recruiter?

Lars Leafblad: I’ve learned that there isn’t a magic formula for leadership  but successful leaders demonstrate some shared traits.

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There are things you’re listening for when candidates tell their story, things like resilience: the ability to meet a setback, make a mistake, have something fail, and then learn from it and keep moving forward. Somewhere, inevitably, things didn’t go as they planned or anticipated and they had to respond, and did.

There’s a linkage between resiliency and courage.  It’s not a matter of heroism or heroic leadership all the time, but of simply moving forward into the unknown, which is always fear-inducing, whether you’re wrestling with a personnel problem, a project, a partnership issue that’s going off the tracks, or whatever.

So let’s see: courage, resiliency, and also authenticity. The authenticity part comes through when the people telling their story are able and willing to share with us not just the highlights and accomplishments of their careers, but also those moments when things didn’t go as they planned.

The ‘I-me’ versus ‘we-us’ ratio

 Another thing I have always homed in on in listening to candidates is what I might call the “I-me” versus “we/us” ratio. Let’s say they’re describing how they spearheaded a new idea  I’m listening for how they describe that experience. The candidates who seemed to default to “I-me” most often were very often the candidates who didn’t become finalists.

There’s certainly an appropriate place for underlining one’s individual accomplishments, decisions, and achievements, but having the awareness that it inevitably takes a team, a larger structure, to achieve goals is what often sets the best leaders apart.

Connected versus networked

The Line: You’ve been dubbed “the most connected man in the Twin Cities.” Your Pollen network and online publication connect a lot of active and influential Twin Citians. Talk about how your kind of connectivity relates to leadership.

Lars Leafblad: I think there’s a linkage between leadership and connectedness, and also that there’s a difference between being connected and just being networked.  Connectedness is a philosophy. It’s a world view. It’s a belief that to get things accomplished requires partners. It requires networks collaborating and moving forward.

What Pollen reflects is a wide range of different people with different interests, agendas, and aspirations contributing to help each other and others benefit  with the belief that by connecting with others, more good results will emerge for the things everyone is interested in. I think that connectedness is another leadership trait that we will see more and more in the future, given that we have big problems that require integrative solutions. Those problems will require leaders who are not only comfortable with this notion of connectedness  with multisector and multipartner approaches  but who practice that notion in how they see and engage with the world.

Power and connection

The Line: Leadership involves the use of power. How do you see these new paradigms of connectedness affecting political power and its uses?

Lars Leafblad: (Laughs) I’m certainly not a scholar of  the methodologies and models of power, but I’m very interested in some of the tools that we have as a community and an electorate to engage with, hold accountable, promote, or disagree with those who hold power, especially those who are in elected office. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and the rest.  And what we’re starting to see is the next generation of elective leadership using those tools to engage with constituents, with the community, in different ways.

leafblad interview
Photo by Bill Kelley
“I’m certainly not a scholar of the methodologies and models of power, but I’m very interested in some of the tools that we have as a community and an electorate to engage with, hold accountable, promote, or disagree with those who hold power.”

So what does that say about power?  Returning to what we were saying earlier, I think those in elective leadership, if they’re not already aware of it, will soon be aware of the power of seeing the world through networks and connectedness.

It’s about more voices being tapped much more quickly to get ideas and input, and I’m hopeful that Minnesota, as a state that’s prided itself on its civic innovation and participation, can lead the way here. Our state legislature, and also our county and other local officials and governance boards, could engage with citizens and concerned stakeholders in new ways that technology permits — ways that weren’t possible at face-to-face meetings 10, 20, 30 years ago.

The end of hierarchy?

The Line: How can we promote that kind of connected leadership?

Lars Leafblad: What I’m excited about is the chance to ask that type of question, to keep asking that type of question of a lot of different people in a dynamic way — what are we doing to effectively equip leadership today and in the future?

I think there are some traits that we will continue to see, especially this notion of connectedness. I think leaders who operate in a hierarchical way, with a top-down model, are becoming more and more rare. Effective leaders are leading either from the bottom up or sort of around, you know? Aggregating networks to move forward.

The Line: Can you suggest some examples of this?

Lars Leafblad: I think some of the current work that’s being done around education reform is an example of this new network orientation. It’s a public-private partnership that includes Minnesota business,  some of the education reform advocates,  some of the nonprofits in our community, elected leaders, Republican and Democrat and independent, coming together to say we believe we can make positive impacts to help kids, families, and our system.

Getting past the fear of failure

When I think about the broader question of leadership in this state, I wonder, can we create more courage and resiliency too? Here’s a cultural observation and a question: Can we overcome an orientation that we tend to have in Minnesota towards fear of failure? The tendency to avoid mistakes, to defer, to take the less risky option with less chance of failure? Given the amount of unknowns we are dealing with, I think we need people on an individual level, at a community level, and in our bigger institutions to be willing to take more risks — and then be OK as a community if they don’t succeed.

Is it the Lake Wobegon side of us, that hesitancy to make the statement or take the action? That tendency to postpone for another six months or another year that conversation or that thought piece or that action that might create conflict or a misstep or look bad?

If my children were to ask, “Dad, what is your new job going to be about?” I’d love to be able to tell them “I’m going to the courage factory.” In a sense we’re going to create mechanisms, opportunities through partnerships, for individuals and institutions to have more courage and practice more resiliency. Of course the specifics of what those strategies will look like and what those priorities will be is yet to be determined and will be done in consultation.

Courage and cooperation

The Line: Lars, what do you see as the relationship between the cooperative vision of connection you laid out earlier and this need for courage and plain speaking? After all, there are plenty of people in our political landscape asserting what they believe in no uncertain terms, and it seems to be contributing to partisan gridlock, not cooperation and compromise.

Lars Leafblad: The kind of courage I’m talking about means being willing to be wrong. To make a mistake. To look foolish. To fail. To feel shame. To have regrets. And to compromise. Not exactly words, emotions or experiences you’d expect to see listed in a How to Get (Re-) Elected 101 book.

It’s as if our society is engaged in a giant game of Prisoner’s Dilemma and we just can’t escape the lower right quadrant where both sides continue to lose because neither side trusts the other to carry through on their word. The United States of America has a serious trust deficit and we are seeing it reflected in Washington and in our own Minnesota Legislature and local communities. When we don’t trust, we don’t compromise. When we don’t compromise, we don’t move forward. It takes courage to admit others may have the answers and solutions to problems we’re trying to solve or opportunities we’re trying to capitalize on.

A bonus for compromise?

A  key question is, how do we incentivize and reward compromise? The system and the structure now are built not on compromise, but on competition and winning.  Democrats versus Republicans, special interest A versus special interest B. Those who are willing to put a compromise on the table are then vilified or thrown under the bus by their own party or special interest.

Lars Leafblad
Photo by Bill Kelley
“How could we as a society reward and incentivize compromise?”

So how could we as a society reward and incentivize compromise? Would that be through money, media attention, or what? It’s a fascinating question. Members of the legislature are not compensated very well for spending a lot of time and energy. In the professional world you get bonuses or other compensation based on results or goals being met. In politics you get reelected if you please enough constituents, but are there other tools that we might start thinking about putting in the tool kit to reward compromise?

Maybe it’s not money. Maybe it’s visibility or a chance to be held up as great examples of real leadership and thanked in some major way.

We’re attracted to stories of conflict, stories of competition. Stories of compromise, collegiality, shared wins, don’t hit the front pages or the web pages unless there’s some sensational element in them. How could we hold up compromise as a model, share stories of compromise, and help normalize it so that it becomes clear that we expect it in the leaders we follow?

This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy. Jon Spayde is Managing Editor of The Line.