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An Interview with Al Calarco from the Center for Creative Leadership

Monday, November 24, 2014  
Posted by: SAIS
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{HeadLines} November 2014, Vol. 2

By Sarah Stewart

“Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.” - Warren G. Bennis

 SAIS is excited to partner with Al Calarco and the Center for Creative Leadership  for this year’s Heads Leadership Retreat. Calarco has been working with CCL for almost 20 years and serves as a Global Solutions Faculty Member and Executive Coach. The program has been designed especially for heads of schools, and will help them better understand leadership, while identifying their strengths and areas they can grow.

The retreat is scheduled for April 19-20 in Nashville, TN. SAIS sat down with Calarco recently for an interview about the session and we are excited to share some of the highlights. Click here for his full biography. 

SAIS: What makes a great leader?

Calarco: Since its creation, CCL has been asking the question, “What is the definition of leadership?” If you have 50 people in a room, there are probably 50 different answers to that question, but it all comes down to three basic tasks: direction, alignment, and commitment. Leadership provides direction, which some people also call vision. They create alignment, which means having the right people in the right jobs and positions. And they have commitment from their people and stakeholders. Commitment is the willingness to give up my department or area’s wants on behalf of the greater good of the organization. Commitment is being willing to sacrifice for the greater good. 

Also, you need all of these. What happens if you have one, but not the others? If you have direction, but no commitment, you’ll have great ideas that don’t go anywhere. If you have alignment and commitment, but no direction you won’t be moving forward. If you have no alignment, then you’ll have duplication of efforts, people in the wrong positions or people who are not leveraging their talents. It’s important to have all three.

SAIS: What are some important characteristics of a great leader?

Calarco: Leaders need to be able to adapt to change and manage transitions, which are two distinct responsibilities. Change is an event; it is something that happens quickly and can be beyond our control and/or unexpected. Transition is the psychological process people go through when a change occurs, and that takes time and can be managed well or poorly. Strong leaders are able to identify and leverage the change, and then help others transition. 

Also with adaptability, it’s helpful to examine people you work with who are flexible and adaptable. What do we know about those people? What can we learn from them? We believe that adaptability is a skill, and that people can learn to be more adaptable and get better at it over time. It’s a very important skill for leaders. 

SAIS: What is strategic leadership? 

Calarco: It helps to ask the question, "what does strategic leadership look like?" And when we do that we focus on three components: strategic thinking, strategic acting, and strategic influencing. And the reasons we make these separate points is that some people are good at one but not the other. If you are a good strategic thinker, but not a strategic actor, then nothing gets done. Some people are good strategic thinkers and actors, but they lack influence. Influence is what allows a leader to get things done through the dotted lines of the organization. How do you influence people who are not under your direct authority? These are important questions for leaders to consider.

SAIS: How can leaders have a greater impact on their organizations?

Calarco: In many organizations, people say they don’t have silos, but they have glass silos. You can’t see the walls, but they are there. In 2010, Chris Ernst and Donna Chrobot-Mason wrote Boundary Spanning Leadership based on a decade of research from CCL. The book outlines the five common boundaries that occur in organizations, countries, and societies that can prevent collaboration. The boundaries are: horizontal, vertical, stakeholder, geographic, and demographic. Once you understand the common boundaries, then you can look at your organization through that lens to identify silos. And once you identify the silos, you can begin to build a strategy for spanning those boundaries to connect people for a great cause. We outline six practices for managing boundaries and forming common ground: buffering, reflecting, connecting, mobilizing, weaving and transforming. You can read more about these strategies on our website

SAIS: What are some challenges leaders face that are unique to this era?

Calarco: Our digital connectivity sets a pace that our parents could not have imagined. An example: you receive an email on Monday and the sender gets a receipt that you opened the email, and if you don’t respond they say, “I know you opened it, why haven’t you responded yet?” Not that long ago you would write a letter and you would have several days to respond. The access people have to us is much greater. People have access to us 24/7 through our iPhones, Blackberrys or similar devices. The pace and the expectation of immediacy can be difficult to manage. 

As an executive coach, I talk to people a lot about setting limits and understanding they can turn their phone off at times. I was at dinner with a family and their rules were no phones at dinner. The dad said that their family had to get rid of the noise for an hour so they could have a real conversation. For that hour, no phones. 

A contact I had while working at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill told me that educators need three R's. They need to retreat, so they can renew, so they can return. When I work with educators, I tell them that it’s important to renew or find time to reflect or get away so they can return and do what is a very important and also very demanding job.

To continue the conversation, connect with us on Twitter, @SAISnews

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