• The Perils of Leadership

    When I teach leadership one of the first discussions I have is about the differences between leadership and management. Warren Bennis says that management is about doing things right and leadership is about doing the right things. Stephen Covey said management is about climbing the ladder fast whereas leadership is concerned with whether the ladder is on the right wall. I would also add that management is often about maintaining the status quo (“keeping the trains running on time”) whereas leadership is fundamentally about changing the status quo. Leadership is about making something different happen. And because leadership is about change, it is inherently perilous.

    One of the best books on leadership is one we use here at the School of Government as a core text of our Public Executive Leadership Academy (PELA): Leadership on the Line by Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky (2002, Harvard Business School Press). The authors make a case that “exercising leadership can get you into a lot of trouble.” The reason why is because leadership is about change.

    To lead is to live dangerously because when leadership counts, when you lead people through difficult change, you challenge what people hold dear—their daily habits, tools, loyalties, and ways of thinking—with nothing more to offer perhaps that a possibility. (2)

    This kind of change is what the authors call “adaptive change.” Adaptive change is distinguished from technical change, which is akin in my mind to the functions of management. With technical change the problems are clear-cut as are the solutions, which are simply about applying “current know-how.” But adaptive change requires learning new ways of doing things and changing from comfortable patterns of the way things have always been.

    I’ve experience the perils of adaptive change up-close and personal the last couple of years as I have served on the board of directors of a public charter school, most of that time as board chair. When I initially joined the board it was simply a response to more-or-less being recruited and a way I felt I could give back to a school that had been serving my children well and whose mission I believed in. But within months of joining the board, I realized that I was in for a bumpy ride. The director was retiring just as the school was going through significant change with grade expansion and the recent purchase of the building that was previously being leased. Further, once we hired a new director, it became apparent that the financial picture much worse than we ever realized. In fact, as we learned more about the larger financial picture, we realized we had a crisis on our hands.

    To make a very long story short, the school had (barely) gotten by financially for many years thanks to some fortuitous circumstances that were evaporating quickly. The size and grade distribution of the school made the model it had existed under for almost a decade unsustainable. The new director, working with the board, implemented several major changes in a very short timespan to get the school on a more sustainable track. Many hard choices were made. And the blowback from many in the community was strong.

    Heifetz and Linsky point out that at the heart of the “danger” of leading adaptive change is “loss.” They note “habits, values, and attitudes, even dysfunctional ones, are part of one’s identity. To change the way people see and do things is to challenge how they define themselves.” That sense of loss has been acute in some segments of the school community these last two years. Increased enrollments and changes to the way classes were scheduled—necessary components of putting the school on a sustainable path—created a deep sense of loss for some people, particularly those that had been around when it was a very small school of less than 100 students. Even though enrollments were increasing steadily for three years prior to the new director, a lot of that could be mentally written off as expansion to other grades (in additional space). Now we had existing grades growing, and that growth could be seen and felt in the hallways and in some classrooms. The sense of being this small, niche school was being threatened.

    As board chair, boy have I heard about this sense of loss, mostly in the form of angry emails from one or two particularly disgruntled parents. Some of these have devolved into personal attacks (something Heifetz and Linsky specifically talk about as one of the dangers of leading adaptive change). I also know that some long-term teachers have felt the stress acutely, and it weighs on me as board chair.

    We (as a board) are working hard to deal with these perils of change so that the community as a whole can be more unified on the other end of this. We are finishing a strategic planning process now that has helped to clarify and articulate core values. We are working on listening better, specifically to teachers who have a heightened sense of loss. And there are a lot of other things going on that go well beyond what I can put in this post.

    But the bottom line is the past few years working on this board, with an organization going through significant adaptive change, has really, for me personally, shined a spotlight on the real dangers of leadership. Being on the end of personal attacks is not fun. Seeing people you admire struggle with changes and question your motives really hurts. Being board chair has been a serious source of stress. But what keeps me invested and willing to work through these challenges is a belief in the school and the people I am working with, and seeing a bright future for the school as an institution. The board collectively feels the school’s best days are in the future, not the past, and that excites us and keeps us moving forward. Leadership is about stepping up. If there were no challenges, if change were automatic and frictionless, leadership wouldn’t be necessary.

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