Does your school value students who exhibit character, grit, and leadership? Is it in your mission to develop these traits in your students? Probably, and rightly so. But as I and others have urged educators to step back and think deeply about the meaning of the word “grit”, an important article by Susan Cain, writing in the New York Times, urges us to take a similar hard look at the meaning of “leadership” and how it is pushing our students into perhaps a narrow vision of their best selves.
We value leaders. We know that many elected and business leaders have been nurtured at “the best” schools and colleges. As Cain notes, many of those schools and colleges loudly stake claims to the production of leaders and the inculcation of leadership skills in their students. But Cain says that we now feel believe that leaders spring from many places, regardless of traditional pedigree:
It’s part of the American DNA to celebrate those who rise above the crowd. And in recent decades, the meteoric path to leadership of youthful garage- and dorm-dwellers, from Steve Jobs to Mark Zuckerberg, has made king of the hill status seem possible for every 19-year-old.
I would never argue that we should de-value leaders and leadership training. The question that Cain raises, that I think is essential for educators to ponder and act upon, is this: what is the nature of valuable leadership?
At one end of the spectrum, leaders direct, prod, or rule over others. They are first among non-equals. Leadership in this construct is about power and position. This is not a value statement, but a statement of fact. Human organizations often need this kind of leadership lest they devolve into randomness or chaos.
At the other end of the spectrum, and perhaps the end that has been ignored because it is more subtle, harder to find, or easier to overlook, is the person who leads from a place of humility, or the shadows, from the bench, or out of some deep creative passion. At this end we find those who do not seek a position of leadership, but rather a path of leadership. We find the moral leader (Ghandi); the explorer (Earhart); the knowledge leader (Einstein); the servant leader (Pope Francis), the inventive leader (Musk).
Cain focuses on the nature of “followers”, who may exist at any point across the spectrum, but not in the spotlight; they are harder to see. They are a subset of those who lead from a position other than power. One of our jobs as educators is to combine the strengths of leading and following into human-social traits that help our students to be effective, valuable, and happy during their lives. Cain says
So now we have high school students vying to be president of as many clubs as they can. It’s no longer enough to be a member of the student council; now you have to run the school.
Yet a well-functioning student body — not to mention polity — also needs followers. It needs team players. And it needs those who go their own way.
It needs leaders who are called to service rather than to status.
One of the really huge questions for educators as we evolve away from the traditional industrial age model to a deeper learning model of schools is “how might we measure and reward what we truly value?” I tackle this as one of the seven levers of incredible transformation opportunity in my upcoming book Moving the Rock. If high schools largely reward those who get top grades for taking a bubble-test, or are elected to power-based student offices, then that is where students will focus. If college admissions offices are looking for students who demonstrate “leadership” by the titles they have held in high school or the number of “advanced” classes they take, we will have shoved students towards only one end of the leadership spectrum. As Cain says, if
…the outsize glorification of “leadership skills” is to the practice of leadership itself — it hollows it out, it empties it of meaning. It attracts those who are motivated by the spotlight rather than by the ideas and people they serve. It teaches students to be a leader for the sake of being in charge, rather than in the name of a cause or idea they care about deeply.
When I work with schools that are interested in transforming away from the rigidity of the traditional learning model, a main area of focus is “distributed leadership” or “leading from where you are”. We know that human organizations that effectively evolve during times of rapid change (like now) leverage leadership from across the organization, not just from the top. Researchers like Alex Pentland, author of Social Physics, prove that the performance of groups of people is more dependent on how they work together than on the leadership of any one person. In fact, they find, dominance by one person diminishes rather than elevates group performance.
How is your school rewarding the servant-leader, the quiet leader, the non-titled leader, the student or teacher who makes those around them rise through the power of ideas and actions outside the spotlight? How is your college or university digging deeper into those admissions applications to widen what has traditionally been a narrow view of “leadership”?
Most simply: as an educator, or a group of educators, do you know what you mean when you say that your school values leadership? In a time when many question the value of political leaders who divide more than unite, and corporate leaders for whom the acquisition of ridiculous wealth is an overriding goal, are our schools contributing to these narrow themes of leadership, or are we “leading” students and teachers to explore vastly richer ways to lead.