I’ve been privileged to work in and with leadership in education for much of my career. I’ve been around so many great leaders and admire their various qualities and approaches to leadership. While it’s easy to think there are essential characteristics that make up a good leader, the truth according to the research shared within the book “The Nine Lies About Work” is that leadership is not a thing. The only real measure of leadership is followers.
I don’t think this is a new concept. Good leaders lead, and their followers help with implementing and supporting their leaders. What seems to be different today is how leaders are perceived and treated and it concerns me.
Successful leaders don’t necessarily seek to do good work but rather gain followers. That’s a neutral statement in that, that can be good or bad. Today you see many successful leaders with a lot of loyal followers who aren’t necessarily aligned with your values. It seems that many of today’s leaders, particularly those in politics have to define an enemy and target them relentlessly. Much like sports, leadership in many circles is about competing against other leaders and working simply to defeat them as opposed to actually leading the pursuit of meaningful and purposeful change.
While it’s easy to point the finger at leadership, I think we forget that as followers, or potential followers, we have more influence than we might think. As you scroll through your social media feeds, most of the commentary about leadership is negative. While critique is an important part of the process and organizational health, vitriol is not. As I write this I think about my own tendency towards vitriol. I’m not even thinking about my own contributions but also my complicit acceptance of others’ hatred of leadership. I have many friends who are politicians, some at the local, provincial, and federal level. Occasionally I look at what others are saying about them and it’s disturbing. I know many of them have developed strategies and thick skin, but it’s still a lot. Every time I’ve done this little exploration, it makes me glad I’m not them. But it also makes me wonder who would want their life.
It’s not just politics either. I have a friend who pastors a large church and is nearing retirement. While he’s been there for 40 years and has a relatively stable and healthy congregation, he says, no one wants his job. In this case, it’s not exactly the same challenge that politicians face but it is the observable opinion that the challenges and difficulties that accompany the job are not worth it.
There has been a rash of school superintendents leaving in many regions. The pandemic and recent political issues have contributed but I also think the general lack of respect and suspicion of leaders makes it a hard job to keep. I do know of many outstanding school leaders who have faced many challenges and no matter their skill or character, leadership continues to become increasingly difficult. The ones that have been able to overcome typically have done so because of their work and efforts to build social capital. That’s a super easy thing to write and much harder to do.
It’s nice to be able to write about problems and try and offer some solutions. I don’t really have many to share except perhaps one: be kinder to leaders. I’m thinking specifically of the way we speak about our politicians. They are often simply caricatures of our imagination and the zeitgeist. It’s become sport and while I enjoy a great comedic take down of those in power, it’s a dangerous and thin line between witty repartee and hate. As educators and parents we need to be better. I know many who read this engage in a great deal of banter online and aren’t afraid to share their viewpoints. There’s nothing wrong with that and in fact it’s commendable in many ways. But that line gets crossed more often than it should even by well meaning folks. You might argue the stakes are high. I’m not arguing but I think most of us as educated “leaders” know when someone has been vilified beyond what is humane. And while you might again justify the stakes, the reality is that kind of vitriol bleeds into leadership positions where the stakes aren’t particularly high. The net effect is that young people who might potentially have the aptitude and disposition to lead, will choose other options for fear their ideas become that of public ridicule. Because all sides of all issues seem to exhibit the kind of behaviours that make leadership an undesirable career choice.
All I’m asking is for us to be careful. To celebrate and honour and respect the positions of leadership and at the very least, credit all leaders for attempting to be successful. Start with those you serve under. Make sure you know they are appreciated. Our schools are and have been challenging for teachers and they are looking for and are thriving under good leadership. But even if you aren’t completely satisfied, letting leaders know you are grateful for them isn’t necessarily about endorsement but an acknowledgment of their efforts. This doesn’t mean you relinquish your voice and needs but in fact is another way to build your own social capital. Once you get intentional about the way you treat leaders you see and work with, hopefully you’ll begin to apply those same principles with those in greater positions of power. If we do want to see great new and young leaders emerge we are going to have to do a better job in making these positions more appealing and meaningful way to spend a life.
Dean Shareski is a Senior Partnership Consultant for Advanced Learning Partnerships. He is the author of Embracing a Culture of Joy. As an educator he has been serving students, teacher and school leaders for the past 31 years.