It starts with you and must engage others – Kansas Leadership Center; Principle #3

One of Michelangelo’s students asked him what he saw as he gazed upon a dirty marble slab.  Michelangelo replied, “I see an angel hidden inside and I will carve until I set him free.”  The artist then set to work, unrolled the leather case of carving tools, opened his wooden box of mallets with his favorite collection of brushes and began working.  Good leaders carve angels out of marble slabs.

Like Michelangelo, our success or failure in leadership is based on how we view ourselves and how we view others: it starts with us and must engage others.

Engaging others sounds like a wonderful idea in theory, but most leaders will tell you it’s easier to change the direction of a stampeding herd of buffalo than it is to fully engage people.  Ask any teacher how many students are fully engaged in their classes.  Ask any CEO what the ratio of fully engaged employees is compared to those either going through the motions or collecting a paycheck until retirement.

Whether it is a group of volunteers, a civic or religious organization, or a company of employees, maximum productivity occurs when everyone is engaged.  Like the rowers of the boat in the photo accompanying this blog, if one rower slacks, organizational speed diminishes and the likelihood of ramming the bank is multiplied.

So how do we engage others?  If we applied Michelangelo’s principles in leadership, it might look something like this:

      •  A fundamental belief that something beautiful is hidden inside of everyone
      • It’s going to take time –patience is more than a virtue, it’s essential
      • It’s going to take work – adaptive situations require creative thinking
      • We will be frustrated at the lack of progress at times – we can’t give up
      • We must always imagine what the finished product will look like –we must dream
      • We will make mistakes along the way- we will correct them

I learned a valuable lesson about engaging others in a rural African village years ago. A meeting that normally would have taken an hour in the US took nearly four hours for one simple reason; it was expected that everyone in the room had a voice that mattered. Even though the guy who stood up to speak might say exactly the same thing as the person before him, he nevertheless had his chance to speak his mind, even if he was parroting.  What mattered most is that everyone was heard.  The best leaders build collaboration by engaging others.

Sometimes confuse consensus and collaboration, yet there is a major difference: consensus is trying to get everyone to agree on the same thing which is often nearly impossible; collaboration is engaging people who might disagree with some points, but are captured with the overall vision and believe their contribution is valuable and meaningful.

Good questions to ask yourself about engaging others:

      • Am I trying to create a partner or a follower?
      • Am I trying to get them to do what I want or what is best for the group?
      • Do I really need this person’s involvement and opinion?
      • Am I really listening or just waiting for a chance to talk?

Some folks say they like collaboration but they’re really after product endorsement rather than productive engagement.

In that same little African village I learned this saying that aptly describes the leadership principle of engaging others:

If you want to run fast, run by yourself; if you want to run far, run with others.


Check out the Kansas Leadership Center.

Buy Ed O’Malley’s book (co-written with David Crislip):  For the Common Good: Redefining Civic Leadership

Do whatever you can to go through their training.