Linda Ginzel

Choosing Leadership

Rooted in the content of her leadership courses, Linda Ginzel's new workbook gives any reader the tools to become wiser, younger.

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Linda Ginzel never set out to write a book on leadership. Or so she would have told you in 2016, after wrapping up her first year of teaching a capstone leadership course to Chicago Booth Executive MBA students. At the end of the winter quarter, she sat down and graded herself on her development of the course—and only got a B+. So she decided to create a workbook of handouts, exercises, and activities to complement her class—and it took off. Students were better able to understand her philosophy, from the context behind the terms she used to the importance of crafting one’s own personal definition of leadership.

Word spread, and soon even people beyond her classroom would ask for copies of her course material for their coworkers, friends, children. Her students would want to share the lessons they learned in their well-loved, dog-eared copies of the workbook, but there weren’t extra copies. She began to realize that the best way to truly spread her mantra—that anyone could lead—was to share her insights widely, in a format that could help any curious reader develop his or her own leadership skills.

The result is Choosing Leadership, being published by Agate this October. It is a new take on professional development that debunks common myths about leadership and encourages readers to follow a personalized path to learn how and when to lead.

Chicago Booth Magazine talked to Ginzel, clinical professor of managerial psychology, about her upcoming book.

What do you want readers to take away from your book?

I want people to gain a deeper understanding of why, when, and how they want to lead. If you’re going to stand up and make a risky choice, on what basis do you make that choice, and how much courage does it take? We have all these idiosyncratic constraints that we put on ourselves because we look at leadership as this collection of exemplars that we can never match—you don’t have to be charismatic or extroverted or blonde.

We have to learn about ourselves and about what’s worth taking a chance on. We have to understand what it is that makes other people want to follow our vision for the future. I dislike when people say you need to be this kind of leader, or that you should emulate this person, because there are as many different kinds of ways to lead as there are people. At some point, you need to figure out who you are and why people follow you.

As long as you’re alive, it doesn’t matter how old or young you are—you can become more of who you want to be. You can grow and develop. 

Why do you call leadership a choice?

One time, I gave a lunch presentation about leadership and asked people about their earliest leadership experiences. This should be an easy opener into how people define leadership and what its core essence is to them. But I found a lot of people answered with, “Oh, I haven’t been in a position of leadership yet,” or “I’d like to lead, but I’m only a manager.” I realized that we are limiting our own ability to make a difference and create more meaning because of the stereotypic definitions of what it means to lead and what it means to manage. 

Choosing Leadership is about democratizing leadership development. I’m trying to break down stereotypes about what a leader is—what they should look like, or what their gender or educational background is. One of my goals is to get people to stop using the word “leader” and instead use “to lead” as a verb. In the book, I use the word “champion,” meaning to advocate or change. When we’re in the present, which is most of the time, we are delivering on our promises, doing interviews, writing stories, and teaching classes. Once in a while, we make a choice to change the future. When we do that, we are championing a vision of a different tomorrow. 

We all have opportunities every day to make a bigger difference if we choose to, but first we have to realize that we have a choice to lead. It can be a small choice or big choice, but we can make choices every day.

How do you hope people will use this book?

I plan to get this book into the hands of everyone I possibly can. I’m going to ask my students who come into my classroom to leverage what they’ve learned in my workbook and plant seeds in their community, their temple, their school, their family, their workplace. If you’re an executive who learns from my course, you can bring this book back to your company and give your colleagues time to work with this book and discuss it in groups—to teach and learn from other people’s advice, and tell your own stories about who changed your life. 

I hope the readers form something like a book club. I want to see leadership-development clubs all over the place. You can use this workbook to figure out what leadership is for you, how your definition affects your decisions, outcomes, and behaviors. At the end, you can create your own exercises as well. You can use anything as a catalyst for learning and developing your leadership. All of the chapter titles begin with verbs, and the physical book itself is the size of a composition notebook. It’s meant to be written in and revisited—to act as a companion for lifelong learning. 

Why did you decide to make Choosing Leadership a workbook rather than a traditional book on leadership?

The book is written to reach a broader base. I hope that it will be useful to everyone from high-level executives to high school students, teachers, and stay-at-home parents. You are never going to be younger than you are today, but you can be wiser tomorrow—it doesn’t happen just by chance, though, you have to work on it. The book is a vehicle to help you to do that work.

In order to learn and develop your leadership, all you need is a little time and a little structure. The book provides the structure through the activities, and its content provides context. You’ll think about your choices, create your personal definitions, and make your own decisions. It’s not a book that gives you a leader to emulate. It’s not a book you’re supposed to swallow whole, or put on your shelf. It’s a book you’re supposed to do.

—By Leah Rachel von Essen
September 19, 2018