Wanted: Leadership (Not Just) From the Top

From climate change to technological disruption, the challenges facing our world are enormous. Addressing these challenges will require leadership—not just from those at the top but from all of us—particularly project professionals who are responsible for leading change in our organizations. In this post, David Altman, Chief Research and Innovation Officer at the Center for Creative Leadership, shares the lessons he’s learned about leadership from his more than 20-year career studying the topic.

Written by David Altman, Chief Research and Innovation Officer | Center for Creative Leadership • 12 Oct 2023

Achieving new heights

Leadership is both an art and a science. There are certain clearly defined principles of leadership, but applying those principles requires understanding and responding to the specific needs, dynamics, and complexities of a given situation. True leadership is also "human-centered.” It requires empathy, collaboration, and an ability to make decisions that balance performance and productivity with well-being and social benefit. So, when PMI asked me to develop this post on “leadership lessons,” I wanted to provide more than a dry treatise about leadership principles. I wanted to capture the rich complexity – both the science and the art – of how skilled leaders operate in a changing and challenging world. Here, then, is my admittedly impressionistic view of true leadership – my “Ode to Leadership,” if you will:

You are a student of leadership. But you will never graduate from a school of leadership. Being a leader is a journey, not a destination.

You are passionate about continuous learning.

You know that optimism is a muscle that gets stronger when used. The world will always be partially empty and partially full. What you focus on will affect what you think and do.

You have abundant curiosity. About yourself. About others. About knowledge. About different points of view. People see you as much more interrogative than declarative.

Your interactions with others have more question marks at the end of sentences than periods or exclamation points.

You routinely ask open-ended questions.

You realize that the mindsets and skillsets that brought you to where you are today are necessary but not sufficient to help you navigate the challenges and opportunities you will face in the future.

You give and receive solicited and unsolicited feedback. You believe that feedback is a “gift,” even when it is hard to give or to receive.

You are undaunted when you don’t know what to do. Not knowing what to do is a frequent occurrence for you. When you don’t know what to do, you know that the issue you’re facing is important. You lean in and eventually figure out something to do, even if it’s a small and uncertain first step.

You understand that incremental changes compounded over time produce outsized effects. You continuously look for opportunities for small wins. You know that small wins in the present cast large, transformational shadows in the future.

The challenges you face are sometimes problems with known solutions and sometimes polarities or tensions to leverage. Tensions that don’t have a known solution require you to adopt a “both-and” mindset (i.e., two seemingly contrasting ideas are interdependent and have upsides and downsides). Maximizing the benefits of the upside and minimizing the risks of the downside is a mark of effective leadership.

You help your teams manage the business of today. At the same time, you help them build the business of the future. Too much emphasis on the here and now to the detriment of the future, and vice versa, diminishes your effectiveness and the impact of your organization.

You study and understand the issue of cognitive bias. You accept that you have biases that can get in the way of being an effective leader. You use this knowledge to manage the biases that influence how you view others and the world.

You don’t need prompting to understand that embracing all forms of equity, diversity, and inclusion will result in broad and deep benefits to you, your teams, and the organizations you lead.

In every conversation and meeting, you prioritize building trust with others and psychological safety in your teams. High levels of psychological safety result in team members bringing up ideas and sharing information without fear of being criticized, ignored, or punished. Trust and psychological safety can't be achieved without empathy.

You pay it forward. Day in and day out without expectation that you will get anything in return. By bringing out the best in others, you bring out the best in yourself.

You have come to understand that constant curiosity, imbued with resilience, and enveloped by intentional and random acts of kindness is good for you and good for others.

David Altman headshot

David Altman
Chief Research and Innovation Officer | Center for Creative Leadership

David Altman explains the power of the incrementalism theory and how it is the best way to achieve consistent sustainable growth.

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