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Cross-Sector Leadership from the Presidio to the Jet Bridge

By Sara Brenner

Last week I joined senior officials from the White House, Congress, the State of California, private industry, and the social sector for the Forum on Cross-Sector Leadership at the Presidio Institute in San Francisco. The Forum focused on exploring real-world examples of cross-sector partnerships and contributing to the design of the Presidio Institute as a global laboratory for incubating best cross-sector practices and fostering lasting partnerships to solve major societal challenges.

One of the most engaging conversations at the Forum emerged from the question “What is the greatest contribution to leadership that the Presidio could offer the social sector?” While participants had several different definitions of leadership and a plethora of ideas about opportunities for the Presidio, one clear area of agreement emerged: leaders who seek to tackle social problems must be comfortable and ready for “the messy and the ambiguous.”

Through Community Wealth Partners’ research on social transformation and our client partnerships, we know that 21st century leadership development must provide opportunities for experimental learning and practicing strategic execution amid uncertainty. We also know that cultivating shared leadership and opening your circle to include both usual and unusual partners are paramount to tackling problems at the magnitude they exist.

It was exciting to see the parallels between our own and others’ thinking at the Forum. Our group collectively asserted that “the Presidio should help leaders lead confidently without always having a clear path.” I found it comforting to hear leaders from across the country and across sectors confirm the importance of building leaders who can make progress, find confidence, and bring a diversity of stakeholders along on a path that may not be linear or clear.

From classroom to jet bridge

While training and professional development can help cultivate cross-sector leaders – and I look forward to following the Presidio’s future efforts – I was reminded on my trip home that developing a cross-sector perspective happens all the time, outside of formal programs and education.

While in the airport getting food before the flight, I found myself talking with a pilot who ended up coincidentally being the pilot of my plane. We found it funny to “reunite” at the end of the jet bridge, where I needed to recharge my phone. Standing there, I engaged one of United’s ground employees in a conversation to learn about the weight of the plane and balancing the load. When the pilot saw me casually interacting with the ground employee, he said, “You must be a United employee! Are you?” I cheerfully responded that, in fact, I was not.  He was shocked: “You’re not an employee? No customers ever talk to the employees.”  I was reminded in this moment that to become true cross-sector leaders, we must not judge others by their roles or positions. Instead, we need to “open our circles” in how we live our daily lives and seek to minimize barriers – real or perceived – that might inhibit us from seeing the gifts and knowledge others have to offer. After all, our personal values and norms define our authentic leadership and the results of our work.

As change agents, we must see cross-sector leadership not as a formal qualification of experience but rather as an ever-present perspective through which we can live, work, and change the world.

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Sara Brenner

About Sara Brenner

As President, Sara Brenner leads the firm’s consulting business. Sara helped develop and is implementing the firm’s new strategy to solve social problems at the magnitude they exist, while leading a sales team that grew revenue by more than 45%. Sara oversees the implementation of the new strategy-aligning products, impact measurement, and talent initiatives with a results-based culture to deliver exceptional value to partners. With over 15 years’ experience in consulting for nonprofits, for-profits and the government, Sara worked extensively in the health and human services including at the Advisory Board Company and The Gallup Organization. See Sara's full bio

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