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Faces of Leadership

Margaret Anderson Kelliher

As former speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives and an endorsed candidate for governor of the state in 2010, Margaret Anderson Kelliher has had to draw on leadership skills she honed during more than a decade in politics.

She believes that what she learned while in the government lends itself to her current role, as President of the Minnesota High Tech Association. She shares some insight on the fundamental leadership lessons that she's relied on for both high-octane roles:

Use persuasion, not dominance: Sure, acting like a steamroller can be satisfying sometimes, but not if you want to get things done. As more organizations are moving toward a less-hierarchical structure, persuasion will be key, Kelliher believes.

"This lesson came to me when I found myself trying to lead a caucus of diverse individuals in the House of Representatives," she says. "In that situation, you can't fire anyone. So, you have to learn effective leadership, and that involves persuasion." More specifically, she had to entice her fellow politicians to take risks, and to come to a consensus whenever possible. Kelliher admits that effective persuasion takes a great deal of work, but it's worth the effort.

Dissenters in an organization must be protected: Some people say "no" to everything and see their role as being an obstacle to all progress. Those are obstructionists, notes Kelliher, and they're very different than dissenters, who can bring nuance and depth to projects.

"When someone has a different opinion, it's the job of the leader to protect them so they don't get eaten alive," she says. Dissenters cause people to think more deeply about their assumptions, or to see projects in a unique way.

Because of the value of those perspectives, leaders have to find ways for dissenters to contribute their views without fear of reprisal. That might mean sticking up for them in meetings, but more likely, it involves finding multiple channels for them to communicate their ideas. "Dissent and independence can be nurtured, and they can add a lot to a discussion," says Kelliher.

Know your limits and find your refresh button: No one can work non-stop, although plenty of people certainly try. Kelliher believes that it's important to know what you're good at doing and to recognize limits on time as well as physical and mental capacity. She says, "You can push your limits, absolutely. But there comes a breaking point, too."

When that's reached, it's time to take some deep breaths and hit "refresh." Kelliher chooses to refresh herself with activities that don't involve technology or politics — she writes, sews, does creative projects, and gets outside to run, walk, or snowshoe. "You have to give yourself that mental space," she says. "For me, that time is when I think the clearest, and some of my best ideas come to me when I'm out for a walk or in the middle of creating something."

Lead from where you are: Most people believe they have to be named a leader in order to take on that role, Kelliher says, but she thinks "leadership" is an action word, not a title.

"In my experience, people often get 'leadership' and 'authority' confused," she says. "We put people in roles of authority all the time, but that doesn't mean they're providing leadership."

A leader is someone who takes action to help move an organization forward, she believes. That person can tackle challenges and create opportunities--equally important, he or she can hand off leadership when it makes sense. "It's not like passing a baton, exactly," Kelliher says. "It's more like a dance, where leadership is transferred according to where it's needed in an organization."

Care about others: Kelliher believes that other people would single out this skill as a fundamental trait of hers. She really does care about what's important to others, and is genuinely interested in what motivates them and gets them excited. "Reaching out to others is so crucial," she says. "That's how you learn about what's driving someone."

As part of that skill, it's important to be more interested in the other person than you are in yourself, she notes. This translates into politics as well as the business world: "We've all met those people who like to talk about themselves incessantly. For me, to be a leader and to be able to grow my organization, I have to spend far more time listening than talking."

Elizabeth Millard is Innovation and Jobs Editor of The Line.
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