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Leadership Challenge

Somehow or another I’m going to Harvard next month for a leadership conference at the Kennedy School of Government.

Apparently the Broadmoor Civic Improvement Association got a grant (from Shell, I think) to send some folks to this conference, and they decided to spread it around. So I’m going from Mid-City along with representatives from Broadmoor and the Lower Nine.

It seems like a pretty interesting opportunity, and I’m flattered to have been selected, but it’s all a little surprising to me.

I remember after graduating from high school I got a chance to see my “file.” There were a number of detailed write-ups in there. One teacher described me as neither a follower nor a leader. I thought she nailed it, and I still remember that description twenty years later. There’s no doubt that it influenced my self-conception, my very idea of what kind of person I am. I’ve never seen myself as a leader and, in fact, have actively tried to avoid the leadership positions.

Yet, after Katrina, many things have changed. I now find myself on the boards of several nonprofit corporations. There have been numerous occasions when someone had to step up and do something and I found myself in that role. I hasten to add that I have had many partners also stepping up at the same time.

I still don’t think of myself as a leader, though. To discover that others do is bizarre to say the least.

Honestly I’m not even sure what “leadership” means. I actually searched the web yesterday and started reading about leadership because I’m so unclear on the concept. I was happy to discover such concepts as “group leadership” and “thought leadership” and to see that leadership and authority are not the same thing.

I’m supposed to write a short essay about “one important leadership challenge that you are currently facing in your work.” I’m having a real block thinking about this. On the one hand there are so many challenges to every aspect of life in post-Katrina New Orleans, but on the other hand I’m so unaccustomed to thinking about leadership that I’m drawing a blank.

Published inMiscellaneous


  1. Anthony Anthony

    Lots of people looked at the situation in the city and found that it was going to be impossible to go forward with New Orleans as it had been pre-Katrina. Many decided to bail. Some have decided it was their opportunity to be as “bad as they wanna be”. But many folks have decided that the only way forward was for the city to improve in the ways in which it was lacking and that, given the disappointing response of the government at a all levels it was going to be up to the people who needed to see change to do it.

    I’ve said before. We could have ended up anywhere after the storm. We didn’t particularly have to come back. But we made our bets that the city was going to come back and it was going to be better than ever. Now we don’t want to lose those bets so we are trying to guarantee an outcome. Or at least influence it.

    I used to write plays and screenplays, but since the storm all I have written is notes about recovery. Plans about recovery. Posters about recovery. I have sat through the Bring New Orleans Back Plan, my neighborhood’s planning sessions, the Unified New Orleans District planning meetings, Sector Steering committee meetings and countless other “Planning” meetings. And I am not certain it is even about recovery anymore but moving forward from this point on to end up with a safe and prosperous city. We need to put together a growth plan. Before the storm we had lost a third of the population from the city’s high point. The storm took out another third. We sit at one of the most strategic geographic points in the country. Yet we continue to fail to capitalize on it. If that isn’t a call to change, I don’t know what is.

  2. A leader is someone who convinces others to follow them. Being a leader means you’ve earned trust. This is different than someone who spouts orders. Being boss is a position, often unearned.

    Leading by example is part of the American tradition. You may not have been trying to get others to follow your lead but that’s how it worked out.

  3. Lee Lee

    I’m with Gene Ha B. You have done so many things (whether you wanted to or not) that has inspired others. This causes them to look to you for the next step, IMO.

    In my eyes, your a leader in the TV medium, when you use the same passion and enthusiasm with other things, they can be nothing short of great!

  4. Mazel tov on the opportunity!

    Circumstance can pull things out of you that you never knew you had. Seems to me you are one of those rare people who is stepping up because something in you is seeing a need that is not being addressed, and you just HAVE to find a way to do something about that. It is one thing to start on that path, another to finish it. I think you have it in you to take that next step.

    Plus, at the very LEAST, if you get nothing else out of the conference, there’s always the networking…

  5. Garvey Garvey

    To me, the hallmark of leadership is service (i.e., serving others). Fits you perfectly, from what you’ve show here and elsewhere.

  6. I’m sure you’ll have an interesting experience there. What a neat opportunity.

    Just promise me you won’t try to practice “thought leadership.” The first time I heard it, I thought of Nazis, for some reason. My understanding of that term is that it orginiated marketing concet thrown around in the consultant business (i.e. Deloitte, Ernst & Young, etc.).

    In the words of my cynical and insightful boss, who used to work for both of those companies, selling certain expensive consultant work involves neither thought nor leadership.

    And I, too, find comfort in the concept that real leadership is not necessarily always congruant with authority.

  7. I can only imagine what my file might have said – I know that faculty opinions about me did a 180 after junior year when my AP exams came back (wow! she really does pay attention!) and I picked up a different boyfriend. I think ignorance is prbably best in this case.

    Based upon talkinmg to folks who have attended Harvard events, I think their seminars/ conferences/ feeding troughs are probably a better investment than the four year degree. I look frward to reading about what you learn and how you think you can make it useful in rebuilding.

  8. Joe Joe

    I’ve noticed about myself that I’m frequently a very useful second banana. I’m a little better at being the leader’s sidekick than being the big guy. I wonder if that’s what it means to be “neither a leader nor a follower.” But then, I’m also a big believer in ad hoc leadership… knowledge and good ideas can be found all over any good organization.

    Max DePree wrote a great book called “Leadership is an Art”; it’s a pretty easy read and might be worth a look before you go to Harvard. (Or it might give you an idea or two for your essay.)

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