Are You a Meta-Leader?

Posted 07.26.2012

As I’ve written here before, I’m a big fan of retired U.S. Coast Guard Commandant, Admiral Thad Allen. I’ve been fortunate enough to hear him speak a couple of times, the most recent of which was a few weeks ago at a meeting of senior U.S. government executives.

Most Americans know Admiral Allen from his roles in leading the responses to Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. In the talk I heard most recently, the Admiral explained how the concept of meta-leadership helped him organize his thinking and plan of action in each instance.

Meta-leadership calls for a thoughtful integration of five elements when developing a leadership plan of action. The factors are:

  • Leading up
  • Leading down
  • Leading across siloed boundaries
  • Understanding the problem you’re dealing with
  • Understanding yourself as a leader

Allen has spent a lot of time working with one of the co-creators of the meta-leadership model, Harvard’s Lenny Marcus, to encourage its use by leaders in the field of emergency response. It’s easy to see how the five meta elements would apply in situations like responding to Katrina or Deepwater Horizon, but they also matter a lot in more prosaic, everyday leadership scenarios.

What’s your take? Are you a meta-leader? Which of the five elements comes most naturally for you? Which one offers your biggest opportunity for improvement?

What tips do you have for any leader who wants to be a more effective meta-leader?