Meg O’Connell On Leadership: Really Good Leaders Are Impatiently Optimistic

So I got married and my husband and I moved overseas and taught at the American School in Switzerland. Then we moved to Virginia, and he did two years of grad school. I worked for a shelter, similar to Vera House, for domestic violence and abuse. Then we came up here (1990), and I spent five years working for Planned Parenthood here in Syracuse.

I grew up in a family that was very much post-Vatican II Catholic. It was focused on social justice. It was not far removed from the immigrant community. It was intellectual. We always had Jesuits at Catholic University and Georgetown coming for dinner. We interacted with a lot of different religious. All that had a huge influence on me.

There was an understanding in our household that you worked as hard as you could and that education was your path. The bar was set really high. You never questioned how high that bar was set. You just reached for that bar.

When I met Eric, who's now my husband, he kept saying: Do you want to go out on a date? Won’t you come out with me?

I was like: No, no, no, no, no.

I was on this path of education, and there were going to be no distractions. He kept hanging in there, until one day I woke up and said, you know, this guy's pretty cute.

What's your advice to be an effective leader?

A: I think of how leadership has changed. Leadership used to be you were the head of a corporation or you were head of something. You had an official title.

If you really think about leadership, it’s not a title. It’s the ability to get people to follow you, to have a vision, and then to get more people to rally around and want to move that vision forward.

That's what leadership is in any field. You motivate people to get behind your shared idea.

Good leaders recognize that you have to get people to collaborate. You have to get people to want to work with you and with each other. Good leaders bring out the best in people. They are not divisive. They hold people up. The people who want to be part of your organization are people who feel like it brings out the best in them.

I think good leaders genuinely care. There's a sense of selflessness. It's not about them. It's about something that's greater than them and they help everybody to see that and buy in. Good leaders genuinely care about employees, they care about their community.

It's very much about servant leadership.

With good leaders, there's not a lot of ego. When they do the work, who gets credit for the work? It doesn't come from a place of I. Good leaders make sure that there are enough seats around the table to get everyone's voices to be heard.

Good leaders are decisive. They can make decisions. It's hard to make decisions. I think that's probably one of the hardest things that leaders have to do. There are some leaders and a lot of people who just don't choose. Not choosing is a choice as well. So good leaders are decisive.

I like what Eleanor Roosevelt said: Be confident, not certain.

As I've grown older, I’ve learned that there's a lot I don't know. I surround myself with great people. We think things through. We analyze. At some point you make a decision and then you start down that path. There's an intentionality. That's a sign of a good leader.

Good leaders take risks. They see the possibility in a calculated risk. A lot of people will see that the glass is half empty and won't be able to make a decision. They won't take a risk because fear overwhelms them.

Really good leaders are impatiently optimistic. There always has to be a kernel or some sense of hope. Study the data, but you never know if it's going to work. You got to take a risk to try it.

On any decision that you make, look at data on all sides. Look at the pros and cons of any decision. Look at the financial modeling and the business plan and everything else. Sometimes it's not gonna model out, but there are times to say: No, this is important enough that we're going to figure out how to make it happen.

Good leaders will talk about it and figure it out. I love that African proverb: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others.

What attributes do you see in poor leadership?

A: Poor leaders make it all about themselves. Their self-importance is more important than the cause or the broader vision they want to accomplish. Harshness is not effective in motivating employees. I think the Dalai Lama says: My religion is kindness.

I think there is a growing acknowledgement that leadership is complex and hard. That’s why good leaders surround themselves with others and listen to them.

Poor leaders will tell you something, but then their actions will be very different.

I always tell my kids: Don't only listen to what people say. Follow what they do. Follow what they do when they're not in the limelight and when they're not on TV.

If I see what you do, I'll know what you believe. Poor leaders will tell you something, but their actions will be very different.

It gets down to character and integrity. Those things distinguish a bad leader from a good leader.

The weekly “CNY Conversation" features Q&A interviews about leadership, success, and innovation. The conversations are condensed and edited.  ___ Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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