By Matt Thomas, Ed.D.
For most of my 28+ year career, I’ve heard that “leadership is lonely.” It’s been said to me by school leaders, Fortune 500 executives, and pastors with multiple staff members. So, I’ve always believed it.
And, because I accepted this as normative, I spent far too many lonely days as a leader. Eventually, I became dissatisfied with this norm, especially in institutions that were led by Christians.
I remember hearing the refrain from mentors whose loneliness aligned more with feelings of insecurity than biblical wisdom.
“No one else knows what it’s like.”
“You can’t fully trust those who work for you.”
“You never know who wants your job.”
“I’m the only one capable.” and maybe the most often stated,
“The buck stops here.”
Maybe you don’t overtly verbalize these things but, you might unknowingly say them through your actions. I did. I took great pride in bearing the weight of the institution on my shoulders. I found it noble to put my health at risk driving my body and mind into the ground. I believed that it was “authentic leadership” to hoard and lord power before it was taken by someone else.
Harvard Professor Ronald Heifetz calls this pattern of leadership the “ethic of responsibility.” This ethic describes the actions of a leader who takes responsibility for holding the organization together but they have no expectation of being held. Additionally, when this ethic is embodied, a leader is likely to believe the myth that they are the lone wolf, which Heifetz also notes is, “heroic suicide.”
Heroic suicide? Is this what we’re unintentionally committing when we lead as though we’re the lynchpin of the organization?
Yes, leadership assumes followership. But, no one wants to follow a leader who leads through isolation (Proverbs 18:1). The sobering reality is that the leadership culture of the 20th century was guided by rugged individualism, sometimes at the cost of the individual and more often at the cost of those within the organization. “The strong man and the genius in the room, as Simon Sinek says, became the focus of the modern-day business school’s curriculum while teamwork, ethics, and leadership qualities seemed to fall to the wayside.” Fall by the wayside sounds like a description of too many lonely Christian leaders that operated with a lone wolf mentality.
Is there a better way? Of course, there is. But it’s not overcorrecting to the opposite end of the spectrum. Leadership by consensus isn’t ideal either. In an article in Fortune magazine, Jim Collins, the author of Good to Great, said that in his years of research, “No major decision we’ve studied was ever taken at a point of unanimous agreement.”
At Baylor’s Center for School Leadership, we believe the better way is evidenced when leaders model mutual dependence. Mutual dependence seeks to elevate, empower, and build up others within the organization. In schools, mutual dependence means not only identifying leaders who will one day hold power but sharing that power with them today. Mutual dependence leads with vulnerability that increases trust rather than demanding trust be earned before dependence is modeled. Mutual dependence leads with a balanced expectation of needing others and being needed by others. Mutual dependence leads with a functional understanding that we don’t grow things, we let things grow.
So, here are three actions we recently witnessed school leaders doing to model mutual dependence.
Nurture to elevate.
Recently, our team worked with a school leader that believed leaders don’t own anything, especially people. This school emphasized viewing each person as a gift that was to be nurtured not owned. It was deeply refreshing to observe administration viewing their role as stewards taking great care to elevate each person for the benefit of all, especially students.
Share power to increase influence.
Another school we worked with modeled rare humility. This humility was expressed in humble confidence that neither projected nor protected personal power. This head of school believed that leading with this specific kind of humility exponentially multiplied her influence when power was shared with other leaders. You can imagine how much her team appreciated her.
Build smart teams to improve student outcomes.
A weakness common in leadership is recruiting, training, and leading teams. This becomes even more complicated when a leader believes the institution’s success relies mainly on their expertise. Individuals can start companies, but it takes a team to build them. This is what we observed firsthand while working with a school at a recent improvement community launch. It became obvious that this school had comprised a smart team in the way responded to a challenge and how they worked to solve that problem. Applying the team’s expertise resulted in the creation of a plan of action that was owned by all. Ironically, the Head of School silently sat and observed this smart team do the work they were capable of doing.
Each of these schools demonstrates what William Taylor asserts in his book, Simply Brilliant,
"The allies you enlist matter more than the power you exert. Organizations that make the most dramatic progress are the ones that invite ordinary people to make extraordinary contributions and whose leaders are as humble as they are hungry."
Friend, when you express confidence in mutual dependence on other team members rather than your reputation or positional power, it frees you to fully focus on the good work you are called to do with the people God has mercifully entrusted to your care.
I believe this is the better way.