Leadership does matter. As I wrote in my last post, it is important for leaders to not be fearful of leading. We can talk all we want about quiet leadership or leading by example, however, if you don’t have people’s attention they might miss your lead or example altogether. One of the reasons you’re in your position of leadership is because of your experience and expertise. It would absurd to not use that experience and expertise to the benefit of your school or organization.
That said, leadership is not about always being the leader either; sometimes it’s just as important to follow. Sometimes you are the expert and sometimes you’re not; sometimes it is important to allow others with more expertise to take the lead or at least build the capacity of others so that they may eventually do so.
So what stops us from doing this? So many of us understand and can talk about the importance of shared leadership, so why don’t more of us do it? What gets in the way of leaders being able to step back and allow an implementation process to unfold without having to be the center of attention? For me, it’s all about ego.
First, let me say that there is always some level of ego involved with any leadership role. Every effective leader has a fundamental belief in their ability to make a positive difference within the context in which they are leading. I see a healthy level of ego more as confidence, which can be defined as the sweet spot between arrogance and despair (Rosabeth Moss Kanter). It’s in the arrogance or despair where our ego loses balance and negatively affects our ability to follow. Although most of us think of ego as a kind of inflated sense of self-importance, ego also drives the leader at the opposite end of the continuum. Let’s look at each separately.
The ego of arrogance is the leader that believes that nothing can be accomplished without them, or at least without their input. The leader whose ego is out of balance in this direction believes they are the smartest person in the room and that their experience is more credible and relevant than anyone else’s. They are the leader who is not afraid to lead on steroids. Not only are they not afraid to lead, they have to lead and take credit (or at least partial credit) for everything.
The ego of despair is the leader who leads from a desperate feeling of insecurity and believes that nothing should be accomplished without their input. This leader believes that they must continually prove why they have been put in a position of leadership; they see all successes and failures as a direct reflection of their ability as a leader. This is why these seemingly polar opposite positions of ego are more similar than we might think. Insecurity leads to control-based leadership where the leader works to make sure they are the smartest person in the room (again, other overlap between the two extremes). This characteristic is much more difficult to spot since it often appears as arrogance.
The arrogant and desperate leader has difficulty following; the confident leader doesn’t. The confident leader knows they are the leader but has no burning desire to continually prove it. The confident leader has just enough arrogance to believe they can make a positive difference, but just enough despair to admit they don’t know, to seek the input and guidance from others, and allow some to emerge as leaders themselves.