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Book Review - When Everyone Leads

WHEN EVERYONE LEADS: How The Toughest Challenges Get Seen And Solved. Ed O’Malley and Julia Fabris McBride. (2023, Kindle Edition)

In the book, When Everyone Leads, authors O’Malley and McBride share lessons from their work at the Kansas Leadership Center (KLC) to inspire engagement for leading change on tough issues. The KLC experience, they maintain, is countercultural—“You don’t need a title to start leading”. The authors make the case that in this fast-paced world, the “leadership as a position” model is collapsing. They contend that leadership has nothing to do with role; but rather is about seeing and seizing moments to help a group move forward on the most important challenges. Their thesis is that “when everyone leads, we make progress on our most important challenges”. 

When Everyone Leads begins with a 10-point manifesto (declarative statements) from the authors for redefining leadership, along with five (5) core principles that undergird the practice of “adaptive leadership”, which include:

  1. Leadership is an activity, not a position.

  2. Anyone can lead, anytime, anywhere.

  3. Leadership starts with you and must engage others.

  4. Leadership is risky.

  5. Leadership is about our toughest challenges.

Following the introduction of the core concepts and principles, O’Malley and McBride engage the reader on a journey of discovery on how to incorporate the KLC approach of adaptive leadership into daily life. Accordingly, the book is organized into five (5) parts as follows. 

  • In Part 1, the authors set the context for when to exercise leadership with the declarative statement: “Leadership always starts with dissatisfaction. No one exercises leadership unless they are unhappy with the current reality versus their aspirations for the future.” The authors then walk the reader through a process on how to “Identify the Gap” between the current and desired state to bring understanding of an adaptive challenge that fuels the need for leadership.

  • In Part 2, the authors explore five (5) commonly encountered “Barriers to Progress” in finding a way forward, along with strategies for addressing each. Specifically, the barriers include: the fear of loss, conflicting values, the seduction of quick-fixes, insufficiency of position authority, and dealing with risk and uncertainty.  

  • Part 3 focuses specifically on the third principle of adaptive leadership—somebody needs to start to do something; so why not “Start With You”!? The authors then present five (5) actionable strategies for doing so, including: seize the moment and empower yourself; place the adaptive challenge at the center of your work; start where you have influence; focus on what you can control, and engage others at every step along the way.

  • Part Four explores how and why “facing the heat” is necessary for making progress on adaptive challenges. In this regard, the authors liken an organization to a ‘skillet’, and the process of exercising leadership to that of regulating the temperature and flame. In effect, they stress that the role of a leader is to create spaces and facilitate conversations in which the temperature around an important issue is neither too hot nor too cold. Strategies are then explored on how to address the heat around a challenge when it stays too low—which may lead to work avoidance, or when it goes too high and tempers flare.

  • Finally, in Part Five, the authors present a call to action and offer a simple way forward on how to exercise adaptive leadership in any context—where one lives, works, or volunteers. Specifically, they present four (4) practical strategies for exercising adaptive leadership in daily life including: Ask powerful questions. Make multiple interpretations. Act experimentally. Make leadership less risky for others.

Throughout the book, O’Malley and McBride employ a story telling approach with real-life examples they label “Making it Real”—the format of which is akin to the longstanding syndicated newspaper advice column “Ask Ann Landers” (I’m dating myself here!). 

When Everyone Leads is an essential primer for anyone who desires to improve their effectiveness in addressing tough challenges in life.  The book is an easy read and short enough to digest in a single sitting.