“Describe your leadership style and a significant influence on your leadership style.” This was posed to me recently in an important interview.
“Hmmm.” I knew the right answer should be couched in the leadership literature. My mind raced. “Should I give them a rehearsed line from Stephen Covey, John Maxwell, or Jim Collins? I know this stuff cold. I could hit it out of the park.”
But, then I surprised myself and took a big risk: I didn’t give an answer meant to impress the interviewers. Instead, I said, “My greatest leadership skill is consensus building. I learned it on the corner of Beecher and Walnut Streets in North Baltimore as a child.”
In my childhood, I was part of a great gang of neighborhood kids. Most days, you could find us on Beecher Street somewhere between Walnut and Broadway. We were easy to find; there was always a pile of bikes nearby. We were together from morning until dusk and our moms usually had to interrupt a game of “Ghosts in the Graveyard” to drag us home after dark.
Flashback to the summer of 1970: a time when our nation was reeling from an unpopular war in Vietnam, the music playing on the radio shouted “Four Dead in Ohio,” and cities were burning due to racial conflict. Yet, on Beecher Street, a group of 10 year-olds were practicing consensus building.
It started every morning when one member of our little posse asked what we were going to do today. In the business world, that is called defining the problem.
The next step in consensus building is identifying alternative solutions. In our 10 year-old conversation, there were usually several suggestions ranging from a wiffleball tournament, playing town on our bikes, going to the library, or organizing a foul shooting contest. Sometimes there were suggestions for bigger projects like planning an afternoon swimming trip to the quarry, counting all of the cars on the trains that would pass that day, or setting up a lemonade stand.
Evaluation of the options followed. There were comments like, “We can’t go to the quarry because I have a Little League game tonight so I’m not allowed to swim today” or “We lost the last wiffleball yesterday.”
This brought us to decision making. This was the hardest part. If one kid was passionate about his proposed idea, he would need to use his persuasive skills to recruit more support for his scheme. We didn’t know it then but we were learning sales skills at that moment.
Some days, my idea would be approved and then it was my role to make it happen. As example, if we agreed to go to the quarry, we would need to secure permission from our mothers, each get $1, plan a meeting time and place to begin the two-mile bike ride, decide who else might want to join us, invite them, and negotiate what time we needed to be home. On other days, my idea was overturned and that was an opportunity for me to practice being a good follower by not pouting that the group hadn’t rallied around my plan and working to bring someone else’s suggestion come to fruition.
Finally, we came to the last step of consensus building: implementation. That was the part where the best memories were made. Some of those great plans that became reality are still crystal clear in my memory. One time we even created a backyard carnival!
In hindsight, I realize it didn’t really matter what we did; the true magic came from sharing those experiences with friends and the real education happened in practicing teambuilding, selling an idea, evaluating an option, and learning to lead a project from the front and also from the back, as a good follower, while a friend practiced leading.
As for the important interview, I could have said, “In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. ‘A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus,’” but I didn’t. I just said, “My greatest strength is as a consensus builder and I learned it with Ron, Rhonda, Randy, Shari, Steve and Gary on Beecher Street in North Baltimore.”
And as for Stephen Covey, John Maxwell, or Jim Collins, their teachings just confirmed what a bunch of 10 year-olds in North Baltimore practiced every summer day a very long time ago.