October 31, 2015
I met Courtney Klein in 2005 when we were both undergraduates at Arizona State University. She was already making waves in the entrepreneurial community because of the momentum she was building behind her organization, Youth Re:Action Corps (now New Global Citizens), which sought to empower youth to change the world. Over the years, she became not just a source of inspiration for me, but a good friend and colleague.
In 2012, she co-founded and is now currently leading SEED SPOT, a nonprofit incubator that helps other social entrepreneurs grow their ideas into successful enterprises.
She recently took some time to offer some thoughts on leadership. Her reflections are below.
1) How do you define leadership? What makes a great leader?
Leadership is about building a vision and inspiring people to join you in the pursuit to make it real. I think great leaders lead with their heart first; they are aware of the team and community that support the cause, and are relentless in empowering individual people to achieve their own goals and dreams.
2) At what point in your life did you realize you could lead? Was there a specific moment or event that triggered this realization?
Gosh, I am still not sure I define myself as a leader. By title, I am-- but by function, I really try to use a distributed leadership model and empower my board and my team and our community of supporters to take ownership of our results. Looking back though, I did take on leadership roles throughout my life-- first through school clubs and then through professional events and activities. When I was 21 and running my first nonprofit organization, I was shocked as to how many people believed in me and believed in the vision I had-- so from that standpoint, I suppose I realized in my early 20's that my ideas and passion inspired people to join a cause.
3) Who were your earliest role models for how you think about leadership? Who inspired you? Can you describe what attracted you about them?
Early on, I looked at Wendy Kopp, the Founder of Teach for America, as someone who inspired me. Her story was similar to mine in starting an organization while in college. Her success has been remarkable to witness. But now I look at leaders who are really going out on a limb and trying to transform major systems or tackle really big issues and who are not afraid to fail. I am attracted to leaders now who are really taking on issues that will change humanity and those who are dreaming up some pretty audacious visions for how to do that.
4) What were some of the most challenging aspects you encountered when you began to lead or take initiative?
When I was younger, I encountered a fair amount of the "oh, look - how cute" kind of attitude as a result of being a young leader. I never gave credence to that attitude and therefore never really allowed much room for that to shape or mold me. Management of other people was, and still is, probably one of my greater challenges. My management style is very hands-off. I believe in hiring the right people, setting a vision for them, and getting out of the way. That works most of the time, but as an organization grows and more people become involved, a high level of accountability is required and keeping track of all of the moving parts is challenging when you have a management style like mine. Any time I have a challenge of any type,I ask for advice; I ask for help. Having mentors that have been there/done that has been the biggest support. I seek out and build relationships with mentors that I can call when times get tough.
5) When things get difficult, what do you do to regain focus and momentum?
Sometimes stepping away provides the greatest clarity. I find a lot of resolution on my yoga mat and a good yoga practice will force me to think about things differently.
6) How would you characterize your leadership style? How involved do you like to get on the day-to-day processes of running an organization? What do you think is your most important contribution to these processes?
I am a builder; I love launching new initiatives or building new models from the ground up. So my leadership style follows that in that I am a visionary - one that can paint the picture of what the future looks like, and inspire people to drive towards that future. At the same time, I am incredibly detail and task oriented so I often get into the weeds and fine-tune how things are done -- I love looking at the process and ensuring that the team has a realistic roadmap for how to get from one end to the other. Outside of that, I consider myself a very trusting leader -- I trust my team to make good decisions. I am also not afraid of failure so I often encourage my team to take a risk, try something out--and if it doesn't work, it’s a lesson learned.