Everyone has different theories of leadership, what it means and what a leader should and should not do. I don’t think that any of them are wrong and I don’t think there is any one right answer. There is, however, one particular role of a leader that has stuck in my mind recently, and that is the role of an enabler.
As this year’s President of the Engineering Students Association (ESA), I have a team of 17 committee members to lead. At first I felt pressure to ensure that 2016 was the best year yet! I spent a long time trying to come up with new ideas, what we could do differently and how I could make that happen. Eventually I started spending time thinking about my 17 committee members. I am their leader. What do I have that they don’t? I’m not necessarily more enthusiastic than the other committee members. I definitely do not have better ideas than them or more relevant organisational skills. I don’t even have any more experience as an engineering student than they do. All I can think of is that I have more experience with the ESA, and by virtue of this more contacts around the university and possibly a little more time allocated to ESA tasks in my week.
These don’t really sound like particularly exciting things to have special knowledge about or expertise in, but they’re the things that can help me to be an enabler. As soon as I started thinking this way I realised that I don’t have to come up with exciting initiatives. That’s not my job! I’m the one who gets to spend time with people making their ideas happen. At our first meeting the committee spent over three hours throwing around ideas. That’s a lot of ideas! And 99% of them weren’t mine. All I had to do was provide some (admittedly delicious) food and drinks, some pens and paper, and occasionally a bit of direction and advice based on my experience. It was an organic and awesome way to start our year together. I felt like a good leader that day.
Here is a photo of the committee after our second meeting (by the lake) with the ESA dog, Frankie!
I am just finishing up as a CSIRO Vacation Scholar this week. I have been here working on my own research project within the Innovation Hub project that the CSIRO is working on (check it out here: http://www.csiro.au/en/Research/LWF/Areas/Resilient-cities-21C/Urban-challenges/Innovation-Hub). The project is all about providing tools and forums where better collaboration can happen between innovators in the urban development planning world. The CSIRO will facilitate innovation that will lead to us living in better designed cities. It’s not necessarily the one doing the innovating this time, but it’s the one giving other people the space and the tools to do so. So in this sense, the CSIRO is a real enabler and therefore leader in the world of innovation.
In February I am travelling to Cambodia to participate in a summit by Engineers Without Borders. We get to spend time in small communities learning from the locals and developing ideas together. We will gain a glimpse into the life of a humanitarian engineer. I think humanitarian engineers are another great example of leaders as enablers. They don’t enter communities to enforce their own ideas on the locals or create temporary solutions. They enter communities with the skills to develop ideas with the community and create something with them that is sustainable and of which the local people can have ownership.
I think this is a really healthy and helpful attitude towards leadership. It puts the focus where it should be – on the team and their ideas. Leaders do not necessarily have to be the smartest or the most creative. Leaders do, however, have to cultivate an environment where ideas are shared and developed freely, connect their team with opportunities to make their ideas happen, and enable their team to shine!
I think this is something to keep in mind. Over the next month I’m doing an online leadership course through edX and I expect my ideas will keep on developing as I go. For now, this is what works for me!