In a battle too important to lose, the journey of being an influential leader continues

Aug 23, 2019

What makes an effective leader? The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) suggests to truly be an effective leader, a leader must master the ability to influence others. George Hallenbeck, a lead contributor in CCL’s program Lead 4 Success, indicates, “Without the ability to influence the heads, hearts, and hands of others, the truly important things in work and in life can’t be achieved.” Effective leaders command, but they also inspire, persuade, and encourage. Leaders tap the knowledge and skills of others, they lead individuals toward a common goal, and they garner a commitment from the individuals to achieve a specific outcome. Center for Creative Leadership (2019) Four Keys to Strengthen Your Ability to Influence Others. Retrieved from https://www.ccl.org/articles/leading-effectively-articles/.

The CCL goes on to say that leaders need four key skills to be a great influencer:

  • Political savvy
  • Authentic self-promotion
  • Building & maintaining trust
  • Leveraging networks

In retrospect, those four skills were vital to my role in helping move the children’s mental health policy in Iowa forward with substantial success during the 2019 legislative session.

Political Intelligence

Being politically savvy in Iowa’s children’s mental health conversation meant understanding the politics which surrounded the Children’s Behavioral Health Board, the Executive Branch’s involvement and leadership both by the Governor’s Office and DHS, but also the politics between various advocacy organizations in the state. All of these players had a different idea of “the right way” a children’s mental health system should be designed, and they definitely weren’t always on the same page at times. To navigate these waters, it is important for a politically savvy leader to strategically network to build social capital both formally and informally, and practice active listening amongst the players to find ways to appeal to the broader common goal. For example, as the Children’s Board began to examine governance structures for a children’s system it was clear that the Governor’s office, the state departments, and the MHDS Regions wanted the children’s system to overlay with the adult system of governance, while the majority of the other Children’s Board members wanted a separate system and suggested looking at the regional Area Education Agencies or Early Childhood Iowa regions as a possible governance structure. If the Board were to have voted, the alternative governance system idea would have received more votes. But the Board co-chairs (who were aligned with the Executive Branch) guided the Board to make both possible recommendations for the Governor and the Legislature, and leave it up to the politicians to decide which structure was better. For those advocates who were politically savvy, it was fully understood the plan the politicians would decide upon would be to govern the children’s and adult’s system together. At that point, I made a key decision to support the combined system though I had many serious doubts about ensuring quality pediatric behavioral health services statewide under that structure. However, I also committed to putting a pediatric spin on the proposal by advocating for a Children’s Coordinator and a Children’s Advisory Board in each MHDS Region. When influencing others, context surrounding the situation matters a great deal. In this context, nothing was going to turn the tide of the children’s system being combined with the adult system even if the Children’s Board voted on a different recommendation. The only politically intelligent answer was to join with the recommendation to combine the governance structure with the adult system, but make it sure it was being guided by pediatric experts who had a voice at the table.

Authentic Self-Promotion

The skill of promoting yourself can be tricky if you lack a sense of humility or authenticity. Self-promotion can be viewed as bragging or being selfish to further one’s own professional standing in the community, but in the right hands self-promotion by an authentic leader can elevate those around you. Leaders that possess this skill are talented in creating a sense of team, and bringing people together around a common goal. These leaders also look for opportunities to step into the spotlight to share their ideas, which are often improved with the addition of the team’s ideas and buy-in. Such is what happened when I suggested we combine efforts of various advocacy groups to form CAMHI4Kids (Coalition to Advance Mental Health in Iowa for Kids).

To be honest, part of the idea was simply for me to avoid having more meetings to attend as various groups organized to advocate for their children’s mental health policy agenda in 2019. The foresight was realizing these groups together had a much stronger voice that if they operated alone, and that in order to bring the groups together cohesively there had to be a common thread. In this instance, the broad Topos Partnership talking points on designing a children’s mental health system was that thread that bonded the CAMHI4Kids membership together. The opportunity to walk through the talking points and to explain the purpose of each point, meeting after meeting, was my spotlight moment to influence others to follow my lead.

Building & Maintaining Trust

Building and maintaining trust is important to any organization, but it is especially important in collaborative work between organizations. When trust is achieved between partners the members are better able to fully commit their time, effort and creativity to solving problems together. People follow leaders who understand and support them, and offer a clear path forward on an uncertain journey. In 2018, I didn’t have the trust of the various advocacy groups working on children’s mental health. It was nothing against me personally, but some advocates responded negatively to the message that trauma or adversity (ACEs) was a disruption to a child’s mental health. Parent advocates in particular, who were doing everything they possibly could to help their child, stated they felt like acknowledging trauma as a cause of mental illness pitted them as the cause of their child’s illness in the eyes of others. A critical step to address this defensive posture and move the collective group forward was to listen to their feedback and change the way in which I spoke about causes of mental illness. I borrowed an over-simplified approach from NAMI of Greater Des Moines that described mental illness typically having three primary causes (or combination of causes): genetics, childhood trauma, and/or brain injury. However, the proposed children’s mental health service array was designed to help any child and their family regardless of the factors leading to their mental illness. There was common ground we could all build upon. The other critical step to build trust was to acknowledge what part of the service array needed to be developed first. Crisis service advocates and preventive services advocates often seemed at odds with one another in the conversation regarding what was most important to children’s mental health. In 2019, I led the conversation quickly down the path that both were important, but crisis needed to be addressed first because it could mean life and death for a child with a Serious Emotional Disturbance. This strategy allowed passionate parent advocates to feel heard and to be more receptive to sharing the message that crisis services and the whole continuum of children’s mental health services (including prevention) needed to be part of the development plan.

Another intentional step I took to build trust amongst the CAMHI4Kids members was to work with the UnityPoint Health graphic designer to create the triangle graphic of the children’s service array represented through a public health pyramid approach. The graphic was shared with all members of CAMHI4Kids in a usable electronic format. I encouraged anyone who wanted to use the graphic as their own, to feel free to place their organization’s logo on it. CAMHI4Kids decided to use the graphic as a way to commit themselves to the collaboration by signing on in support of the service array triangle. Part of the strategy of to creating buy in around the graphic was to vet a draft with advocates from various organizations. It was important that each organization felt like they could see their own priorities represented in the graphic. It took a bit of legwork, but I think it was an important step to vet the final product. The point where I realized that trust had been built between the CAMHI4Kids members was seeing group after group reference the triangle graphic during the House and Senate subcommittees. Few people in the room really knew where the graphic came from, but we all knew it was a tool that helped us display a consistent message with policymakers.

Leveraging Networks

Lastly, influential leaders understand the importance and the power of growing and leveraging networks. Organizations, and especially collaborations, are dynamic over time. Formal and informal leadership roles can evolve, goals and priorities of the network can change, and the relevance of the network itself is fluid as well. Influential leaders know collaborative relationship are like a living being that must be nurtured in order to thrive. Influential leaders are strategic in their steps to help the work of the collaboration blossom. Much like gardening, too little attention or too much sun or water, can have a negative impact. An influential leader pays attention to all the variables and adjusts their actions based upon the needs of the garden. The goal of an influential leader is to guide and inspire for a common goal, not manipulate the network to their own ideas or for their personal glory.

What has been interesting about this journey in my leadership development is that I didn’t have to be named a formal leader to be influential and to guide the collaborative. I’m not a chairperson or formally “in charge” of a committee of CAMHI4Kids. I have navigated my ability to influence our policy issue by looking for opportunities where I identified barriers to our collective success. I examined ways in which I, personally, could help the team address the barriers and then I acted to leverage the power of the network. I measured my effectiveness by the outcomes of my actions and responses of the members of the collaboration. I certainly didn’t get it right every step of the way, but I learned from my missteps and I learned when to ask for the opinions of others.

My evolution to be an effective leader continues, and I hope it always does. I think if you lose that drive to continue to learn what your team needs to be successful, you are at risk of losing your authenticity and ultimately your influence. Very few battles have ever been won when a leader loses both of those vitals traits. Returning to Hallenbeck’s quote, “Without the ability to influence the heads, hearts, and hands of others, the truly important things in work and in life can’t be achieved.” In my book, improving children’s mental health is too important of a battle to lose, and so the journey of being an influential leader continues.

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