Sunday, January 10, 2016

Leadership as Planned Obsolescence

       A great deal of leadership guidance emphasizes the need for the leader to beware the dangers of egocentricity. It's not abut the removal of ego, but having a healthy and secure sense of self. It's the essence of servant leadership. Lately I've found myself considering what seems an extension of this notion. Perhaps truly effective leadership means intentionally rendering one's self obsolete.
       The notion is not one that people in clearly-defined, high-profile, well-rewarded leadership positions are likely to find comfortable. However, I think we can spin the idea into a positive one. It might even be, if not the most tangible, at least the most meaningful sign of success. While I believe my points could be applied to perhaps any field, I'll stick to my realms of experience: education and parenting.
       Let's start really big picture. When a head of school is hired, it's because she or he is a particular person selected for particular reasons and a particular point in time. The school may be ready to launch a fundraising effort; there may be a need to focus on academic innovation; perhaps the school simply suffers from inertia. Over time the more immediate needs shift. If the head manages to meet all the challenges that arise during his or her tenure, at some point the time arrives for a new person better suited for the next round of work. In this scenario, the giant goal is simple. You want to leave the school in a much better place than it was when you began, what ever that may mean, and poised to improve even more under the next leader. In fact, you will recognize that you've done what you can and someone else is better suited at that point.
       In the shorter term, the leader prepares for this moment by shrinking him- or herself so that others may grow. Currently popular terms such as distributed leadership and flattened hierarchy capture this notion. Everyone--not just those with the titles--can lead from where and because of who they are. People then become more engaged and empowered. They feel more of the sense of mastery, autonomy, and purpose that fuels motivation and drives improvement. Then the institution flourishes. This directly contradicts organizations who have soared under dynamic, larger-than-life leaders, only to crash and burn when that person left. It's why it will be interesting to watch Apple over the next few years.
       The same notion can be applied to a classroom. Does the teacher dominate and attempt to control everything? Or does she or he create conditions in which the students can take control for a large degree of their own learning? Has the emphasis been on mastery of content or the fostering of skills and attitudes? Are we preparing them for the test or the next grade, or are we helping them become life-long learners?
       We could ask similar questions about parenting. There's no need here to go into a rant about helicopter and snowplow and lawnmower parents. Instead, I'll merely suggest that the top long-term goal of parenting is to help our children become independent adults who can thrive without us.
       In the professional world, a leader can delay this inevitable transition by continuing to grow, evolving as a group's needs change. It's why great leaders remain insatiably curious and pose provocative questions. Not just about the institution and employees, but also about him- or herself. They also don't accept the hackneyed bromide "Lead, follow, or get out of the way." They know when to do each, and do so quite intentionally.

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