Saturday, October 15, 2011

The myth of the indispensable leader

There are two competing myths about leadership, both visible in the tributes to Steve Jobs on his passing.  The first is that true leaders are people who follow their dreams; whose vision for the organization comes from deep inside them.  The second is that leaders and the organizations they lead should be come synonymous, so that for the span of the leaders' tenure, you can't think of the organization without thinking about the leader.   Together these two myths create the story of the indispensable leader, the one without whom the organization could not flourish.

This model of leadership is embraced in higher ed as strongly as it is in the corporate world.    Read any presidential search document and you will see a call for a leader of vision who can shape the institution.  And talk to any president and you will she that her/his life has been entirely subsumed into the organization, so that, as Westminster's retiring president Michael Bassis said about himself in is retirement announcement, "I have no friends, no hobbies, no life outside of the college."

There is much to object to in this model of leadership.  I will quickly note only two of the biggest objections.

The first is that the indispensable leader model is one that makes building a community of leaders, or of creating a culture of democratic leadership almost impossible.  Leadership networks, like those driving social change in the Middle East and on Wall St. are impossible in organizations that uphold the myth of the indispensable leader.  Without a network, transitions are very difficult, and response to external change can only happen meaningfully through a change in leadership.

The second is that by abandoning his/her individuality, the indispensable leader often gives up the things that are most important to human flourishing--family, friends, service, community, politics, a broad view of the world, connections outside of the organization, love, curiosity, humility, etc. etc.  This sort of bargain--one's humanity for one's job--is unethical and inhumane.  (I know that many people who aren't leaders have to make this same bargain with their jobs.  It is worse for them.)  And it is also bad for our civic life, because it narrows the view, the experience, and the humanity of people whose roles push them into the public eye.

1 comment:

Bryce said...

This is a great post, Gary. It's a bit ironic that the culture of leadership you're advocating for in the post isn't more prevalent in academia, given all of our public pronouncements about the importance of dialogue, collegiality, and democratic decision-making.

Part of the problem seems to be that good leadership networks rarely get much attention because of the absence of a Jobs or a Zuckerberg (when was the last time a movie was produced or a book was written about a leadership network?). So, the view of "good" leaders as strong, independent, and highly visible just gets perpetuated. I'd argue that the democratic leader you've described does more (particularly in the long run) for an organization because they establish a sustainable culture and develop an environment where other leaders can grow.