David Smith had to study for his civil engineering midterm exam, but it was the night of the U.S. presidential election and the vote was too close to call. David stayed up into the wee hours of the morning following the news. Needless to say, he didn’t do well on his midterm the following day.
When his engineering professor was asked why the midterm was scheduled the day after such an important political event, the professor blithely told David that “we train the best engineers here” and if David wanted to be involved in politics, he should go to the other side of campus.
This exchange got David thinking about how he wanted to make an impact in the world. Did he want to build amazing bridges and physical structures, or build bridges that connected people? David ended up majoring in political science and co-founding a youth civic engagement network while still an undergraduate student, which he then ran for another four years. His journey as a civic mobilizer, strategist and leader has informed a lot of his thinking about leadership and what it takes to build a diverse and engaged community.
The need for “cross-sector leadership”
Today, David is the managing director at the Presidio Institute, where he is passionate about “cross-sector leadership” – the idea that to solve today’s complex problems we really need to be able to bring leaders in different sectors together – business, nonprofit, government, academia, faith-based institutions, and more.
However, getting such diverse groups of people working together productively is difficult. David observes that “people are better at pointing fingers at each other, than pointing fingers at the challenge”. For example, government might complain about businesses being overly profit-driven at the expense of community or other ethical considerations, while businesses might complain about over-regulation by the government.
A second shift, is more fundamental, the willingness of a leader to be challenged and perhaps change themselves. This takes great self-awareness, an openness to listening to people unlike yourself and a willingness to find ways to come together. As David notes:
“One person’s truth is not necessarily right over anyone else’s, but collectively you can actually find what it means to be a member of that community. There is a lot of grey and only understanding how you enter into that type of a conversation in a posture of learning, and in a posture of contributing, and in a posture of joint ownership and collaboration…that’s ultimately where you’re going to be able to achieve change. That happens in a fellowship, that happens in a community, that is what civic health is about.”
You can listen to my full conversation with David Smith where we discuss:
David’s journey as a mobilizer, his explanation of the factors that contribute to civic health and his observations around why civic health in the United States has declined in the last three decades
David’s views on “cross-sector leadership” and how the Presidio Institute trains such leaders
Tips on how to begin to think and practice “cross-sector leadership” in your own community
The Presidio Institute offers a full range of cross-sector leadership training opportunities – both in person and online. Their online platform Leaderosity offers paid courses that include instructor facilitation and coaching (different from +Acumen’s free online courses).
+Acumen also offers a suite of leadership courses that touch on aspects described above – Adaptive Leadership, Persuadable Leadership and Seth Godin’s Leadership Workshop.