Nick Holton: Author
The Ignorant and the Knowledgeable
When I first began the readings and discussions for a course in leadership case studies, I did not expect to find much in the way of new information on leadership. The general idea seemed simple enough to understand. In theory, or at least in my head, a leader must be; strong willed in personality but relaxed in his/or approach to others, kind but firm when necessary, inspirational, an agent of change, and, perhaps most importantly, a leaders should have the ability to be flexible. Granted, I had not spend an inordinate amount of time considering leadership, given my young age and current position, but during the time I did devote to its consideration I found leadership and specifically, successful leadership, to be rather simple and naturally easy to accomplish all on my own. I was aware of the positive contributions teamwork and alternative perspectives could make, but again did not give much time to the ways in which organizations and teams could be structured to facilitate the exchange of these perspectives. Essentially, I began this course on case studies with an open mind, but also with the notion that I had a good and balanced grip on what successful leadership was, how to implement it and that I and my administration were doing a fine job of it. Simply put, I was ignorant.
The feeling about my current school’s administration remains the same, though for different reasons after taking this course, but to say that I grossly overestimated my own awareness of what it meant to be a successful leader would, in itself, be a gross understatement. I soon found that there were many fine elements to leadership that I had not given due and ample consideration and started down a path of becoming more knowledgeable of these elements. The use of collaborative learning and discussion not only facilitated the growth of this knowledge but also reinforced one of the main ingredients for successful leadership, teamwork. Using this teamwork, various scholarly articles and chapters on the topic as well as reflection on the various cases we have been given, I have developed a philosophy that I feel truly reflects my growth from ignorant to knowledgeable in the art of leadership. This philosophy is composed of six main components and some more specific details within those components. The pieces of leadership that I find most useful, valuable and undeniable are first, to identify common purpose and values amongst those both leading and being led. This is the foundation for all leadership aspects to build upon. Second is to lead without appearing to lead and in this way, letting much of the work be done in its natural course. This natural course can only be taken if a leader implements the third component, teamwork and empowerment. Teamwork and empowerment will then aid the fourth component, managing change. The fifth and sixth areas of emphasis I now hold in my philosophy are then more personal and follow up skills; to lead with balance and compassion, and to make all that has achieved through one’s leadership, sustainable.
How did I arrive at these six leadership components? As aforementioned, the collaboration involved in the process of learning about leadership, as well as the readings required to gain a deeper sense of leadership, all contributed immensely to the development of this philosophy. As such, they deserve due credit and addressing.
The first component to this leadership is to identify common or shared purpose and values. This seems to be a critical and essential component to any and all examples of successful leadership that we have countered. Conversely, many of the cases we have looked at and reading we have covered have shown that lacking this element certainly created for a troubled leadership scenario, such as Marie’s first principal position, or Principal Vogel’s leadership at Big Mountain. In Marie’s case, there was no vision whatsoever and her staff found themselves floating and without direction. In the case of Big Mountain, Principal Vogel proclaimed his vision and purpose, but was never able to make it take hold with many members of his staff. As a result there was a large degree of individualism and discontent within the school organization. In “Connective Leadership: Leadership in a New Era”, Jean Lipman-Bluman writes about connective leadership and connecting people through leadership. She states that good, connective leaders connect their vision to the vision of others and they have mutual goals, not mutual enemies (Lipman-Bluman, 1999). They can unite a people through these different means and that unity can ultimately lend itself to progress. This unity and commonality is found, not only in large organizations, but in smaller groupings as well. In “The Secret of Great Groups” Waren Bennis lays out the foundation for good groupings and great group work. The first and foremost of these is that every great group has a shared dream and that they manage conflict by “abandoning egos in pursuit of that dream” (Bennis, 1997). According to these two authors, for good leadership and progress to take place in any organization there must be an element of shared goals, dreams, values and purpose. These are areas both Principal Vogel and Marie were lacking in, and as part of my philosophy, will surely by areas in which I do not want to falter.
Once that shared purpose has been established, the next key component in my leadership philosophy and approach will be to try and lead without appearing to. In others words I will attempt to “lead quietly”, when necessary. Taking some of Henry Mintzber’s notions in “Managing Quietly” I hope to be able to inspire, empower, care and strengthen bonds (Mintzber, 1999) . These are just a few of the elements that Mintzber cites as being cornerstones to an organization that is both filled with empowerment and managed quietly. If I want my colleagues and staff to feel they have a sense of power and contribution, I will need to take on these characteristics to the best of my ability. However, managing quietly is not just an item I’d prefer to include in my leadership approach, it is an item that looks to become increasingly necessary. According to Margaret Wheatley in her article on abandoning command and control, we know that self-managed teams are more productive; we know it increases the desire to participate and we know that the individual freedom and creativity used when people take initiative and make changes is a great contributor to an organizations success (Wheatley, 1997). The same ideas are present in Harvey Seifter’s article “The Conductor-less Orchestra” in that structures should be loose and flexible and when there is no “filter” for the “What” and “why” to a group’s decisions the individuals within that group are “uncommonly energized and committed” (Seifter, 2001). By managing quietly, or leading without appearing to lead will, I hope to accomplish these different theories and suggestions and empower and inspire the people around me to grow and use their creativity as they see fit.
Another way to facilitate this creativity and empowerment is through my third leadership component, the use of collaboration and teamwork. One of the staples of another Wheatley article on creativity is that “foremost among life’s teachings is the recognition that humans possess the capabilities to deal with complexity and interconnection. Human creativity and commitment are our greatest resources” (Wheatley, 2001). Taking that notion and applying it to organizations and leadership means making use of those resources available to us. The only real way to try and ensure those resources are used it to share and exchange ideas and allow for the free flow of thought between colleagues and amongst school staff. This would not only make use of these creative resources but also address and the issue of the growing desire for many workers to be challenged and feel more autonomous in the workplace (Offerman, 1997). By empowering them and placing them into groups where the information has the opportunity to be exchanges and flow freely, one would hope to see these groups feel they have a higher role in the decision making process of the school in general (Offerman, 1997). The establishment of these teams and the use of their collaboration should also facilitate the clarity of purpose and allow the staff as a whole to work towards the common goals of the school more efficiently (Lencioni, 2003). These characteristics of teamwork, clarity, creative resource use, empowerment and decision-making are all elements that many schools such as Big Mountain lack. In doing so they limit their potential to grow and progress. Having learned this, I will surely want to try and make it an inclusive part of whatever leadership role I find myself in.
These groups, their empowerment, their shared vision and ultimately their commitment will also be essential in times when the fourth leadership component comes into play; managing change. We’ve seen both in our own lives; in the cases such as Marie’s and in various readings that change is often a hard thing to accomplish. Marie was a drastic change for the staff at her school and wasn’t able to help that change take place. The management of changes such as Marie’s or any other structural change within an organization generally come back to many of the ideas presented in William Birdges “Leading Transition”. He notes that and transition require different stages and shifts and that leaders who fail to allow time for those stages and understand them ultimately fail (Bridges, 2000). To avoid this failure requires a staff that is ready to commit and collaborate, no doubt, but even more critical is for the leader to establish the purpose, picture, plan and part of each staff member to make the change happen (Bridges, 2000). Because these aspects of change and the change itself often requires interdependent relationships (Handy, 2002) it is only fair to say collaboration and group work will be integral parts of the transition process as well. Transition and change requires a change in behavior very often which means that a leader will need to bring people together at many levels to discuss the shared goals and how those goals can be achieved which is, once again, an ample time for the good use of team work (Kanter, 1999). As such, it too should be a part of any school I have some influence over.
If I am ever able to help facilitate the use and implementation of these first four leadership components, shared purpose, leading quietly, managing change and using teamwork and empowerment, then I will want to be ready to implement the fifth component of my philosophy which is to sustain that progress. In Andy Hargreaves article “The Seven Principles of Sustainable Leadership” we see many of the element of sustainability necessary to accomplish such a task and keeping my first four components in tact. These include making the leadership and path of the organization 1) matter 2) last and 3) spread 4) socially just 5) resourceful 6) diverse and 7) systematic (Hargreaves 2004). To accomplish such a list of goals will require the implementation of good leadership practices throughout the leadership journey. For many of these items cannot be accomplished my simple, short and direct effort. They will take time and careful planning if there is any hope of making them sustainable. This seemed to be one of the problems at Marie’s school. Had the previous principal found ways to make his leadership include more of these seven principles, perhaps Marie would have had less difficulty. Certainly I will not want to make the same mistake as her principal did and besides the personal issues for Marie, what good would it do for a leader to spend so much time and energy on improvement, just to see it go to waste when he or she leaves. In that way, sustainability is one of the critical factors to my leadership philosophy.
The sixth and final component of this philosophy then is to take each one of the items I have chosen and use them with both balance and compassion. In “Leading with and Open Heart by Ronald Heiftetz suggests that having compassion, innocence, and an open heart allows us to remain open and retain enough of our soul to help those around us with the changes that are occurring and their adaptation to those changes is well taken care of (Heifetz, 2002). No single item is more critical than this because it provides a leader with the tools necessary to help guide and provide for all types of followers. The same can be said for some of Taoism’s ideas presented in Craig Johnson’s article. The notion of balance and harmony over commandments is an important one because it allows the followers to take ownership of the development of the organization (Johnson, 1999). Remaining balanced, flexible and pliable means that, as a leader, one will be ready and willing to adjust and not be set in stone on a certain idea, approach or outcome. This will ultimately allow for the great progression of all the different components I have already outlined as part of my philosophy and, as such, should take its place on the top shelf of the philosophy itself.
After making use of the various readings, discussions and cases this course on leadership cases has made available I feel that I have truly developed from a leader who felt it was all so clear and simple, to a leader who is more aware of the limited power he holds. This power, while existent and possibly great, is only as strong as the people you empower around you. The followers are the true leaders in a school or organization because they are the objects that ultimately make the changes and adaptations necessary to allow leadership to work and their organization or progress. You have seen this theme rampant in my philosophy and with good reason. It is the single most important idea that I have taken from my learning and hope to use it in the future if and when given the opportunity.