Monday, October 18, 2010

On Leadership

Over the past two weeks, as I've been running our NALU 102 session along with my trusty co-teachers, I've been thinking a lot about leadership, both because of my role, and because of the expectations we ask our students to live up to.  While I have been a "leader" at various times in the past in both academic and extra-curricular settings, my new position as Director of NALU Studies is the first professional leadership position I've held.  While I am only some six weeks into the job, I'm finding the experience a very different kind of challenge from the ones I faced as a student at Stanford, or as a teacher with NALU when I was a mere part-time helper.

Similarly, I think our students sometimes struggle with the difference between titles and leadership, and rightfully so.  One of the things I'm learning is that it is a lot easier to be a leader in a situation when you already have the title that signifies that leadership.  There is less need to be assertive, to show off one's physical or intellectual powers, such as they may be.  Not so for students who are title-less; they often feel that, without leadership granted to them, it is not theirs to take.  I think this is both an astute observation on their part and an unfortunate fallacy, but the reasons why will not be readily apparent until we define leadership.

What is leadership?  Traditionally, leaders are the people who get to make decisions, who get to shape things according to their desires and interests.  The easiest thing for a leader to do, given the power that goes with leadership, is to make use of that power to orient situations and environments so they are more favorable for the leader in question.  That's a broad and probably uninteresting observation, but I think it is important.  Even the most progressive, forward-thinking leaders in the world know how and when to use their titles, their networks, and their other assets to transform a conversation into a representation of power dynamics.  Stated more simply, without sometimes taking control of a situation, a leader cannot display leadership at all.

There is, however, something missing from the conception of leader as executor of bestowed (or taken) power.  Leadership, I would argue, has a lot to do with listening, weighing options, and making choices based upon the needs of others.  Indeed, that stuff is way more important than ensuring positive outcomes for oneself.  That's not to say leadership is a selfless role, but rather than it is not an entirely selfish one.  It is a balance, wherein the needs of a great many people must be considered.

It is here where the myriad titles that make a leader are not really important.  What matters is an individual's actions, instead.  A leader-in-title who merely exercises his will is no more than a selfish child, where a unremarkable, unassuming student who steps up quietly and makes sure that an upset friend's opinion is heard is clearly displaying leadership.

Of course, all of that is stuff you've probably heard or thought about before.  The wrinkle, here, to me anyway, is that leadership is really a lot easier when the leader is less selfish.  Whereas I think there's a natural disposition, especially in our exceedingly greed-driven society, to think that with leadership comes money, which results in a less holistic and empathetic world view, I believe that model is flawed.  That's not to say that most leaders in this country (and around the world) are not well paid, but rather that most of the excessively rich ones end up working too hard and achieving little of real value.  The problem with being even a rich capitalist, you might say, is that you're always looking over your shoulder at the next generation of greedy, clever up-starts who can take you down.

It's easy for me to say as director of an education program that things should be different than that.  But I do honestly believe that even in a major company, good leaders do not spend the majority of their energy organizing situations for their personal benefit.  Consider companies like Zappos, whose CEO takes down a pittance of a salary, or Southwest Airlines, whose founder and CEO was long the least well-compensated CEO relative to the income of his company in the country.  Those companies are innovative, customer-focused, effective, and generally not evil, thanks in large part to their unselfish leadership models.

The same, of course, is true in the education space.  My primary goal as a leader at NALU Studies is to grow the organization into a successful force for positive change in at-risk education in Hawaii.  That's not the vision of the organization, or the mission, but it is at the heart of my decisions as a leader.  It is worth noting that achieving this goal would be good for me as an individual - I think the idea that the success of a business or non-profit and the success of its leader are mutually exclusive is a silly one - but it is also the case that I cannot succeed in making a difference in at-risk education simply by looking out for myself.  It is also the case, and this is the more important point, that I cannot simply act according to my own comforts and passions.

I think, less than outright greed, the greatest flaw that leaders of small organizations exhibit is the tendency towards making the organization nothing more than a reflection of themselves.  Decisions are too often made that do not reflect the best interests of the organization or its stakeholders because the correct - or at least better - decisions would force the leader into a position that is uncomfortable or outside of his expertise.  To me this is an understandable, but avoidable flaw.  Understandable, because I think the fear of taking risks and failing is so widespread as to be almost unavoidable, even among those who articulate and understand the problems with failing to take risks.  Avoidable, because I think leaders who are also general enough in their expertise are liable to not be intimidated by not having the requisite expertise to execute a decision.  Why?  Because a good generalist knows both where to find an appropriate expert, and also knows how to have the necessary conversations with said expert (or experts) in order to get enough information to make a decision.

Enough is a key word here.  Perhaps, more than anything else, asking the right questions in order to get enough information is at the heart of leadership.  No one person can know everything about everything, even in a simple situation with simple options and simple decisions.  Instead, the leader is the person who is capable of making a decision with enough information.  The 80/20 rule is the leader's best friend.  If the first 80% of the information you need takes 20% of the work to acquire, and the remaining 20% takes the other 80% of the effort to acquire, best to make your decision based on 80% of the information.

For a high school student, all of that is probably a bit beyond their interest.  The kind of leadership that occurs within a cohort of ten students in a two week program is of a different kind.  Only, it's really not.  There's a lot to be said for intuition, and it seems to me that good leaders arise even from among students because those students also know how to operate at the level of "good enough," and also know how to subsume their personal interests to those of the cohort (or, rather, realize that their personal interests and those of the cohort are the same thing).  I suppose the challenge for we teachers - as leaders in hopefully both title and deed - is to empower those leaders among us to articulate not just their understanding of a situation, but their metacognition, their recognition of their own leadership and what makes it go.

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