Some thoughts on leadership sparked during this difficult week:
When I ask people to create a list of all the words that come to mind when they hear the word leader, the lists are overwhelming positive, 99% positive. Only occasionally do words like dictator or tyrant come up. Culturally, in the U.S., we are predisposed to see leadership as positive, but there can be a shadow side to leadership. Leadership is one of those roles that tests all of us – those in leadership positions and those who are being led. And if we aren’t paying attention, a leader can lead an organization and all of the people in it right over a cliff.
The success of an organization doesn’t rest solely on the shoulders of a leader. Organizational members bear responsibility as well. When I teach the Leadership Dance workshop, there’s a moment as I teach them how to lead a turn when I stop the laughter to make point. I lift my own hand to indicate the lead for a turn and say “This is an invitation, not a command. If you don’t want to turn, for any reason, – you’re tired of turning, a turn will run you into someone, any reason at all – you don’t have to turn. You never give up your responsibility for your health, safety or for the safety of others.” I go on to connect this to our organizational life, extending this point beyond health and safety to include our values and ethics. I remind them that saying no is relatively easy on the dance floor, but it gets harder and harder in other contexts. It takes courage to refuse a lead. You may have to say no to a friend or to a supervisor. Sometimes that ‘no’ means you have to leave the organization, which can mean you lose a paycheck or friends, or family. But the principle holds, none of us give up our ultimate responsibility for our values and ethics or for the health and safety of ourselves or others.
When I worked in higher education in general, but in public universities in particular, I took very seriously the idea that I was a public servant. I used to say my job was to make sure the university worked for everyone it served – students, staff, faculty, families, the broader community. When I began to hold leadership roles, I took my responsibility to the people I ‘led’ just as seriously. It was my job to leave the organization in a better place than it was when I got there, to make sure staff members had a chance to learn and grow. I understood it was my responsibility to serve everyone, to work with all students, no matter what they believed, where they were born, or who their parents were. I was proud to do so. I was glad to do so, but it was also the job and my responsibility.
I believe we all have the potential to be leaders. I believe that all of us share in the responsibility of leadership. We all have a role in supporting the health and well-being of our organizations. None of us ever give up our responsibility for the health and safety of ourselves and those around us. Whether or not we have a formal leadership role, I absolutely believe we have a responsibility to every member of the organization, to their health and well-being, and to leave the organization better than we found it.
It has always been important for citizens to be involved in the leadership of our government; today, we see it is critical. Many of us have been able to be complacent, but we no longer have that luxury. We need to pay attention because we are being led very close to a very dangerous cliff. It is time to have the courage to act on our values, live our ethics, and hold dear the health and safety of ourselves and everyone around us. It’s time to remember we all can lead and as leaders, we owe each other our willingness to stand up and say no, to take care of ourselves and of the people around us, no matter where they were born, what they believe, who they love, or the color of their skin. It’s time to be leaders.