Friday, June 17, 2016

Leadership as Obsolescence

       A true paradox for most leaders in appointed positions is that, if you've done your job well, you render yourself obsolete. We are hired for a particular reason at a certain point in time, usually based on clear institutional needs and/or desires. A clear list of objectives thus exists; they may even be part of some larger strategic plan. Check off the items as you achieve them by using the skills in your toolkit and fly the mission accomplished banner. Then, however long that process, arrives the time for the next person to take over.
       That's a rational, utilitarian perspective. It makes sense, and it fulfills our desire for tangible progress. It's realistic. It's also too shallow.
       On some levels, working through a check list is relatively easy. It can become procedural, systematic; people comply with the items and do their jobs. But do they embrace them? That's where we start to sense the deeper reasons we should aspire to leadership as obsolescence. It's about culture. It's about what Peter Miller called "the smart swarm," those organizations which function like flocks and hives. They are in sync yet without an obvious hierarchy, the common goals leading to great efficiency fueled by each member's contribution. In a human institution this produces a virtuous cycle and subsequent long-term sustainability. Meanwhile, the leader fades into the background, having helped to create something that endures long after that person is gone.
       We can have a hard time looking at leadership this way. Daily minutiae obscures the horizon, and this stance demands the longest of views. Plus it's in our short-term interests to make ourselves seem indispensable. And certainly we need the right leaders at any given time.
       Can a leader avoid obsolescence? Perhaps so, although the way may involve another paradox, or at least some irony. It may take less ego, making things more about others than one's self. It may take more humility, realizing--and admitting--how little one actually knows. Then one can grow and learn and evolve right along with the institution. Because the truth is not that the institution needs that particular leader. When the culture is right, they benefit from each other.

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