On Leadership

How many times a day do we use the word “leader?” As an educator and as a parent I use this word regularly, writing recommendations, thinking about my family/friends/colleagues, assigning students to positions. It is part of my daily life and routine to empower people with leadership roles (i.e.“X is really showing leadership in this area, I feel like we can take a chance on her ability to rise to this challenge…”). However, while we aid people to become leaders and find their leadership potential we also fearlessly criticize those in power. We constantly question their actions on just about everything (i.e. “how could she support that measure…with that vote she has compromised everything she ever stood for…”). At this moment in time especially, the examples are endless.

For this reason, I have decided to avoid commenting on current political/social/cultural leadership controversy in this post—that is being done enough. Instead I want to counteract my and others’ constant criticism of poor leadership. I have found it productive to notice admirable leaders of various kinds and take notes about their actions in times of crisis as well as in times of relative calm. We can’t find or become what we can’t envision, right? Thus this approach. 

In a recent online survey I took to assess my leadership skills I was given the result of Diplomat. According to this survey, Diplomats value “interpersonal harmony,” “deep personal bonds with their employees,” and are “known for being able to resolve conflicts peacefully.” These are qualities I do value, but the other possibilities were also intriguing to me: the Pragmatist, the Tactician, the Authoritarian, etc. Perhaps being a parent, an educator and a string quartet member makes my awareness heightened in this area, but I am always thinking about how different styles of leadership can be employed to achieve varied outcomes.

Contemplating leadership is already part of a regular practice in my own life. My string quartet rotates the role of administrator of our group for 2-4 week cycles of time, giving each of us a chance to run the group. This is essential for our particular working dynamic in that it encourages creativity in administration, injects new energy into our process and helps us to have empathy for whomever is running the business because we have all been there. It is a mini training ground for mobile and effective leadership; we have short reflective meetings every day and more in-depth ones at the end of each cycle where we assess how things have gone and what could be improved upon. As a result of this process over the past few years all of us in my group have learned a great deal about how to communicate clearly, be efficient in our work and maintain a healthy interpersonal environment. 

With the caveat that I seem to tend towards a diplomatic approach (and taking for granted a few obvious qualities of good leaders like showing up(!) etc.), here is a list of 15 aspects of good leadership I find significant to highlight:

1. Leaders are born through conviction. When listening to an interview with Congressman John Lewis I was struck that he didn’t become a leader in the civil rights movement by trying to be a leader; he felt so strongly about the importance of human equality (and fighting for it in non-violent ways) that he made these actions a priority in his life. Did he come out of the womb with the mandate to serve millions of people? That could be argued. But according to him it was the strength of his vision in adolescence that guided his actions moving forward. Yes, there are people who are physically born into powerful positions, but as we all know, these people are not always good leaders.

2. Leaders listen to what their colleagues/employees want and need just as much or more than they tell others what to do. The constantly evolving ability to listen to others, in my experience, is just about the most important skill one can have for true collaboration.

3. Leaders are able to admit their mistakes and be vulnerable. I was happy to hear about a recent orchestra rehearsal at a major conservatory in which a guest conductor finished a run-through of a piece and said, “okay, here are the three things I noticed I messed up, here are the three things I noticed you messed up, let’s get to work.” This admission of error on the conductor’s part put the orchestra immediately at ease, and they were able to get better work done because they didn’t feel they had to be perfect.

4. Leaders are compassionate. This quality is of course linked to empathy (through listening, see #2), another of the most important qualities leaders can cultivate. In supporting employees and colleagues who are undergoing both joyful and difficult life changes, leaders know when they need to help someone leave the organization if it is time.

5. Leaders assume the best from the people with whom they work. This goes hand-in-hand with empowering the people who work for them to do their best. Assuming that we all have good intentions more often helps people to exhibit those intentions. See Noa Kageyama’s recent, must-read article for how we all benefit from a positive learning and working atmosphere.

6. Leaders know how to set boundaries for themselves and with their colleagues. While exceptionally sensitive, empathetic people (hello, artists!) have the most trouble with this, we always benefit from establishing clarity of working procedures and social interactions so that what is acceptable is not in question.

7. Leaders are self-aware enough to know when they need help doing their work. If leaders are truly honest with themselves they know what they can’t or don’t want to do and are able to hire excellent people for those tasks.

8. Leaders continually work on their communication skills. Great leaders keep a balance between discretion and openness in their communication depending on the situation. In times of crisis, for example, leaders know how to communicate well with an entire organization, making everyone feel a part of a decision. They use executive authority (swift, unilateral decision-making) sparingly.

9. Leaders keep the regular counsel of mentors. In most faith traditions it is expected and often required of spiritual leaders to have guidance from mentors in an effort to stay focused, humble and grounded. I think this should be a required policy in the secular world as well.

10. Leaders are flexible to change especially if the change fits within the mission of the organization, and they welcome feedback on new directions. See #2.

11. Leaders can maintain a certain level of calm in the midst of crisis—we always look to the person in charge for reassurance and guidance. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is someone who has been characterized as “methodical in her approach, very rational and reasonable.” Putting aside views of her political decisions it is easy to see that her demeanor has sustained her through over a decade of tense, difficult world crises. 

12. Leaders maintain a robust reflective practice in their everyday lives. Reading, writing, listening, keeping both the awareness of history and contemporary life for reference, this is connected to #9. Because both curiosity and reflection are essential for the cultivation of wisdom.

13. Leaders keep the vision of the organization, its legacy, its most inspiring moments close at hand for a centered, focused perspective. Everyone wants to be brought back to the reasons why they work for an organization. Yoga teacher Baron Baptiste gave advice to yogis wanting to start their own studios: “People can sense authenticity. Have a clearly articulated vision and communicate it to internal and external teams often. As you become skilled at sharing it, you’ll become an extraordinary expression of your business.”

14. If leaders are empowered to serve others, they are more able to relinquish control and power. This helps them to grow visibly in their positions. Whenever we feel that what we are doing is larger than ourselves, is it no longer about us and we can more freely serve. This is linked to #13 in particular.

15. Everyone has leadership qualities. Referring back to #1, it takes conviction and heart to be a leader, and everyone who cares strongly enough about something to act on it can become a leader. I like to think of my friends who started a letter-writing party to correspond with lawmakers about pressing issues affecting our nation. A high school student who attended that party wrote to a senator about her position on education, then passed around the letter the next day at school for signatures.  After sending in the letter (and receiving a response) she became a leader at her school for taking a stance and acting on it. That experience may become a defining moment in her life.

In the midst of so much cacophonous, thoughtless public commentary, writing about what I consider to be healthy leadership behavior is inspiring for me. As much as our lives and activities are up to us, the environment a leader creates matters wholly to our ability to be productive, creative and generous. I would love to think that the more we envision our ideal leaders the more we create a scene for them to emerge, grow and do their best work.