Last week I got a chance to talk to this year’s Leadership Philadelphia class.
Talk about intimidating, the task of trying to say something useful about leadership to a room packed with some of the brightest, most effective Generation X’ers and Millenials in the region.
I was there because, over the last decade, I’ve had the chance to work closely with Leadership Philly’s fearless leader, Liz Dow, assisting as she has fleshed out her profile of an underappreciated type of effective leader.
Liz wants our region to do a better job of nurturing and validating this type of leader, whom she calls a Connector, a term borrowed from Malcolm Gladwell’s famous book The Tipping Point.
What’s a Connector? What’s so different about how they operate, how they build and deploy power? To explain that, it’s simpler to begin by saying what Connectors are not.
They don’t fit the dominant definition of leadership and power in Philadelphia. That definition hinges on the transaction. Here, leaders are often seen as the person who has the juice to make a deal happen, or to block it from happening, or to put himself in its path, so he can extract some kind of rent in return for letting it happen.
Deals do matter. But Connectors often seek a different path. They commit to a piece of work mostly for the joy of doing the work, with others of like mind. They seek the durable satisfaction that comes from helping the place where you live get a little better.
They relish serving as civic yentas, connecting people who don’t know one another yet but are a good fit, who have the potential to do useful work together. The linkage made, the Connector as often as not just steps aside and lets the new tandem discover its powers.
Connectors care more about creating civic capacity than about who gets the credit.
Philly is full of such people. They do things like start the Fringe Festival, Indy Hall or Back on My Feet. If Philly weren’t so blessed, it wouldn’t be half as great a city as it is, given the corruptions and dysfunctions of its political class.
Liz Dow’s mission has been to find, study and celebrate local Connectors, to give them validation and a sense of, yes, connection to other hidden heroes nearby.
It’s my fond, perhaps foolish, belief that the youngish faces staring back at me as I spoke last week are part of a larger cohort of new-style leaders. This grip is ready, in fact itching, to take over from my tired generation.
And I believe they have the wit, the persistence and the love of Philly to fix our city before it’s too late.