Take Me to Your Leader

I’ve been thinking a good bit about leadership lately. We’ve had a variety of administrative searches on our campus this year. With my son’s baseball games and the  normal sprint to the end of the spring semester, I’ve had little time to blog lately, spending afternoons listening to candidates talk (yada, yada, yada). I feel like telling them to write it down and I’ll read it after I grade my students’ essays.

At least one of those searches is an administrative search we keep having year after year (after year after year after year). Like the seasonal equinoxes, our campus advertises for a Provost/Vice President of Academic Affairs. I’m waiting for a candidate to write a letter telling us his mother once applied for this job.

The definition of insanity, they tell us, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

We’re on the fast track to the nuthouse around here then.

Fundamentally, our problem, it seems to me, is related to issues we have nation-wide when we think about leadership. Our problems isn’t the job ads. Once you read enough job ads, regardless of the position, they are all basically the same. Everyone wants good communicators, employees who work well with others, someone with the particular skill set related to the job, and a person willing to lead the company/school/students to success. Blah, blah, blah. We can pretty easily see their skills or experience doing things.

Instead, our problem is that we keep telling people we want someone willing to share governance, work with the campus community, lead our curriculum, make decisions about tenure and promotion, and be the top dog for our academic mission. Basically, we tell candidates, we want a campus leader.

Unfortunately, I don’t think anyone knows how to define leadership.

Why not, I wonder? Some random thoughts from the past weeks or so:

1. Everyone is not a leader. When my sons were in junior high, one of their elective choices was Art/Leadership. The fall semester was Art and then they threw the paint brushes away and focused on learning how to be leaders. Personally, I would rather have more kids who can draw and understand the creative process but that might just be my personal bias. More importantly, though, we should stop imagining that every kid (or every person) is a leader or is worth following. (Of course, if we are all leaders, there are no followers. It’s a little bit like giving everyone a ribbon for being special.) What such classes tend to teach is that working within the system allows you to rise to the top. Logically, then, those who rise to the top are, by definition, leaders. In job searches, then, we tend to give more credence to those already on the top without any clear sense of how they got there. Did our candidates rise to the top because they were leaders (whatever that may mean) or the tool of others who were sitting on the top? There’s a reason so many movies imagine world leaders as corrupt, soulless automatons willing to sacrifice their soul for more money and power.

2. We put way too much stock in people’s visions and goals. Michael Hess, in his very good book on leadership (Cage-Busting Leadership), makes this point so much more eloquently than I. Hess reminds us that true leadership ensures the tools, time, and talent are being used as thoughtfully as possible. Oh, and by the way, leadership also involves understanding how funds are spent. For my money, then, leadership isn’t someone who focuses on the big picture all the time. We can all dream and inspire people with empty platitudes, but dreams and philosophies have to be grounded in the concrete particulars of reality. We need to learn how to distinguish between inspirational speakers and leadership.

3. Leadership is messy work that almost necessarily requires upsetting people. (Notice I didn’t say leaders have to make hard decisions. Hell, everyone has to make hard decisions. Followers sometimes have to make the hardest decision of all when they are asked by bad leaders to do stupid things.) Good leaders can’t be everyone’s best friend. Don’t get me wrong. Leaders don’t have to be jerks and good leaders can even be loved, but when we focus on time, talent, and money, people who waste any of those three can’t be part of the team. Leaders put people in a position to succeed and then hold them accountable for using whatever talent they have to succeed. When I coached little league, I would periodically have a kid who wanted to pitch or catch or play some position for which he was not suited. Unlike some of my fellow coaches, I didn’t let them play in those spots. It wasn’t about winning or losing. The key to leadership is putting people in spots that allow them to succeed. Sure, little Billy might want to hop up on the mound but if he can’t get the ball to home plate, how are we helping him learn how to maximize his talents? I’m not arguing that leaders have to lay waste to the workforce, but a good leader isn’t afraid to cull the herd.

4. Leadership is about managing failure not avoiding it. I’m so darn tired of listening to candidates and leaders tell me how great they are and how successful they are all the time. “I’m a get things done person.” So is my plumber but I’m not hiring him to lead our campus. Leadership is about letting the people you place in the spot most suited to their talents fail occasionally without punishing them. Little Billy might not have the arm strength to get the ball to home plate, but he might have the arm to play second base. He may have absolutely no idea how to play it yet, but he has the ability. From now on my first and only question of job candidates is going to be “Tell me about a time you were completely and totally wrong about something or someone and what did you do when you realized your mistake.” Trial and error is at the heart of learning and the strength of innovation. Edison didn’t get the bulb lit the first couple thousand times.

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

2 Responses to Take Me to Your Leader

  1. John Wegner says:

    Good point. I think a good leader helps us realize that failure can move us forward. Thanks for the comment.

  2. optimisticgladness says:

    Yes, tell you the truth, I get bummed when I fail, but failure is a huge part of success. I guess you could say, “We fail our way to success.” Good post. 🙂

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