Thought Leadership: Leading a Creative Team Using the Little Miss Sunshine Method

I was at a meeting recently where someone accused a group of not engaging in “Thought Leadership.”

My first reaction was, “What the heck does that even mean?”

I have never been a proponent of business jargon.  I don’t advocate for synergy, I detest the notion of thinking outside the box, and I shudder at the thought of touchpoints.

You get what I mean.  I find business jargon pretentious, and at the end of the day, I think it keeps people from getting to the heart of the matter.  Business jargon is like a cubicle for your brain.

Nonetheless, the phrase “thought leadership” has been in my head, and I think it’s because I am preparing to do my second stint on a panel for the Foundations of Supervision training here at UM-Flint.  This is the training that is for all the current and future supervisors at the university.  I think they ask me because they mistakenly believe I have words of wisdom to share from all my years of managerial experience.  Or, I get asked because 86 other people turn them down and I can’t resist the idea of an audience.

I have been thinking about which words of wisdom I can impart to these leaders.  And all I can think about is movies.

I love the scenes in movies where people/creatures band together to achieve greatness.  Like when the dwarfs and the animals push the wicked queen over the cliff in “Snow White.”  Or when Elliott and his friends get on their bikes and outrun the feds to get E.T. to his spaceship.  That kind of  “nerds against the world” imagery has always appealed to me and I’m not ashamed to say even inspires me.

The metaphor I have been using lately to describe the University Relations creative team is the film “Little Miss Sunshine.”  And the image that most vividly comes to mind is the old Volkswagon van.

Lets face it:  most university departments are akin to that VW.  There is no budget to invest in something really new, so you have to keep your department going by whatever means you have.  And that means you have to get out and push.

As a leader, someone has to drive towards the goal.  But you are going to go no where fast if you don’t work with people who are willing to push, run along beside and then jump on.  And every now and then you need to let someone drive, and you should get out and push.

The thing I have found with creative people (or really with anyone else for that matter) is that they want to be heard, and they want to make a valuable contribution.  No one is trying to do something stupid.  The issue comes when it’s time to disagree.  For creative types, you accept a certain vulnerability with your work.  What pleases people creatively is, to a large degree, subjective.  So you put yourself out there for critique and even ridicule.  It is a pride-swallowing experience that can leave even the most seasoned veteran anguished and depressed.  Creative types know all too well the harshness of brutal honesty.

However, brutal honesty is necessary to get to the really good stuff.  Let’s face it–even with the best of intentions, our ideas can suck.  When we accept the stuff that doesn’t work and go back to the drawing board, that’s how we get to the better stuff.  That’s the pushing part.

I also think it is critically important to let people have ideas, and let them run with it.  I think every manager should allow their team to lead while they follow every now and then.  Even if you think their idea is crazy, reserve your judgement and let them do it. When they prove you wrong, be the first to tell them and congratulate them.  Remember, you hired adults, not children.  They are capable of greatness well beyond you, no matter what your job title.

The thing that really fits about the “Little Miss Sunshine” analogy is the notion of family.  We often spend more of our waking hours during the work week with our work family than with our actual family.  There is dysfunction.  There is drama. We are not a perfect department, but there is no other group of people I would rather work with anywhere.  And just as it’s true with our real-life families, when it comes time to really pull together, to really get the collective VW to the place we need to go, I know the UR family is ready to push.