Leadership and Learning: How Do You Conceptualize Leadership?
I’m obsessed about studying excellent leaders. As I get to know folks, I’m known to enter into a role as a quiet observer, thoughtfully studying and reflecting on what I am seeing, hearing, and watching. I pay attention to everything around me, trying to capture the needed information that is often communicated in an unspoken manner. Once I have established a relationship and trust with those around me, I slowly begin to share my thoughts and ideas, but I try to be careful about my timing, my tone, and work to have an ever conscious awareness of my audience, and possible unintended consequences of my words and interactions. I’m a thinker, so even as I am speaking and working, I am thinking. For me, my brain never stops and that can be a curse as well as a gift. It all depends on how you look at it.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about leadership-more specifically, about what makes some leaders exceptional, and others average at best. A few things have come to the forefront of my mind on this topic and I’d like to share them here in this blog. While I do not presume that my thoughts on leadership are groundbreaking or even new, I do believe they are worth sharing. It should be noted that all of my leadership experience has been in education, mostly as a principal, and now in my new role-unless you count my K-12 student council experience and my role as a co-captian on my high school basketball team. JIn my career, I’ve had the opportunity to observe and learn from a number of leaders, some peers, others superiors. After seeing leadership in a variety of different organizations and at different levels, there are a few summary thoughts I wish to capture and share.
Clarity precedes competence.
Leadership and learning go hand in hand or not at all. Leaders have a responsibility to guide, direct, inspire, motivate, and hold folks accountable for their efforts, but that work is gravely impacted by the leader’s learning. It is quite difficult to lead folks in work you have not embarked on learning. As a leader your learning informs your decision-making. Gathering all information and increasing your knowledge base as needed, allows one to make better informed decisions, see the implications and long term benefits of the decisions they are making, and clarifies the intent of the strategy or action being executed. If leaders aren’t clear on the “what” and the “how” of their work, their competence has the potential to be compromised. There seems to be an encouraged focus to be hypersensitive regarding the “why” of our work as we work with adult learners, but the “what” and the “how” should not be left out of our thinking. Clarity precedes competence because if we only acknowledge why something needs to happen, we end up with some assumptions on what needs to happen and how it needs to happen. We must be clear about not only why we are doing something, but on how it can be operationalized and what that looks like for members of our organization in roles that will execute the strategy we are pushing them to implement.
Support is not a general term.
So often in my leadership experience, I’ve heard folks talk about their need to be supported or even an experience where they have not felt supported. It is my opinion, that our human condition, flawed and all, leads us to believe that a lack of agreement is a lack of support. Instead, we ought to be a bit more conscious about what support should be and how it should be provided as leaders and as recipients of it. Support is about precisely diagnosing what type of assistance, encouragement, intervention or guidance is needed and then administering it at the right time. Support is not about affirming another person’s ideas or actions or agreeing with them. Excellent leaders are careful about the use of this word, and in how they offer and administer support. Support is a gentle balance of pushing and stroking, just at the right time and in the right context. When I think about leaders who I see as excellent, this is something I see them doing with precision. They are not overly complimentary, yet their objective isn’t to be adversarial by constantly pointing out deficiencies and what’s wrong. They are skilled at situational leadership, administering encouragement when it is needed and warranted, critical feedback when it is necessary to ensure performance expectations are met and not compromised, and praise when there is a clear body of evidence of one’s work to support such recognition. Like criticism, compliments, are not given without a link to solid evidence of such. Average leaders often provide empty compliments and use support as a general term synonymous with agreement. Support is not a general term.
Excellent leaders are driven by the work.
My oldest sister Tonya, who is also in leadership (business, not education), told me something several years ago that has gravely impacted my leadership. If you knew our mother, you’d know her rearing was definitely an influence on Tonya’s thought that I agree with whole-heartedly. Tonya said in one of our many conversations about leadership and work, “There are two kinds of horses. There are show horses and there are workhorses. A show horse looks good and sounds good, but a work horse get’s the job done.” So often in my career, I’ve seen those who aspire to lead be enamored with the appearances of leadership. Many admire some who are well dressed, well spoken, socially graceful in their conversations with others, but lack a body of evidence of work to support that their leadership is in fact excellent. Excellent leaders are not only socially graceful, they are also driven by their body of work that serves as evidence that they are achieving their goals and getting the job done. Leaders who strive to be excellent aren’t always moved by what one says or how one is perceived, but by the work one has been instrumental in accomplishing, producing, etc. Excellent leaders are results oriented. Their worth is rooted in their ability to accomplish the tasks set before them. Several months ago, I heard a speaker say that he “always tries to imitate excellence”. I immediately thought, we must be sure we are defining excellence in the right way as leaders. Those we look to as examples ought to have a body of work that supports our judgment of seeing them as an excellent leader.
As I continue to think about this topic, I am sure there will be other thoughts that come to mind. Perhaps I’ll write a second blog as that happens. For now, I share this with you and hope you may have found something in my words that helps you think about how you conceptualize excellent leadership.
Until next time-be you, be true, be a hope builder!