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Leadership is an Elusive Concept

Posted: December 8, 2011

JCHE is currently undergoing a very exciting participatory process to determine how we can be the best workplace possible. Examining both our organizational structure and culture, we have engaged in a number of discussions that have focused on leadership. I have been surprised that this has led to some very charged interactions. Overall, many people I have worked for in my career have not only demonstrated amazing leadership – they have had profound impact on my professional development.  This was not a universal response.  I’m guessing that the very idea of leadership is hugely mired in people’s prior experiences with bad or good bosses.  Let me say up front that exhibiting leadership and being a “boss” are not synonymous—many people up and down organizational ladders show leadership—indeed, we at JCHE are trying to encourage and empower everyone to be a leader in some aspect of the work.  However, being in supervisory role in an organization does offer some special chances to mentor, coach and enhance skill sets of those in one’s charge.  Doing that well is a critical challenge.

I have been generally fortunate in the world of work to have bosses who are impressive and motivating. Of course, a few notable exceptions have certainly helped me understand how disappointing experiences can lead to long-term skepticism about the potential for bosses to be inspirational leaders. 

At graduate school, I had fabulous professors—not bosses, but with similar “power” to effect my success in that place—who used their incredible force of intellect to challenge and inspire deep reflections—learning that lasts.  Lang Keyes, Phil Herr, Tunney Lee and Don Schon all substantially impacted and guided my journey.  Lang is still one of my most respected and trusted advisers.  After school I worked for Tunney in two different jobs—an earlier blog post reported my admiration for him on the occasion of his 80th birthday.  Wise, in my mind, is synonymous with Tunney.  At the Town of Brookline, Richard Kelliher was an amazing boss—who knew intuitively (or through a great deal of learning before I came on the scene) how to both let me go full-speed ahead and keep me within the parameters of the Town’s culture and expectations.  In a tricky management situation, I often ask myself “what would Rich do?” and take comfort in thinking it through from that vantage point.

I also had one boss who berated me for what he saw as three tragic flaws:  (1) I worked harder than necessary to accomplish my goals; (2) I sounded “smart” even in conversations; and (3) I “made” people like me.  He was aghast at these qualities and made my life miserable if I exhibited them—which seemed to happen, in his mind, nearly every day regardless of my efforts to be responsive to his concerns.   An earlier boss believed employee orientation should include maximum humiliation at staff meetings for a few months to “toughen up” the staff so they could represent the agency aggressively.  I do not seek to emulate these folks.

Those who have demonstrated real leadership in my education and profession have been truly inspirational. They have expanded my achievements by leaps and bounds. Alternatively, the negative situations have created miserable work days—and the only positive is the confidence gained because I was able to ultimately forge ahead.  The opportunities that I have experienced for growth and flowering far exceed the constraining and off-putting situations —and these are at the foundation of my aspiration for the type of management leadership for which JCHE will be known.

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