My 6th grade daughter, Claire, told me last week that she was worried about school because she was “behind in Leadership.” I asked, “What does that mean?” She said that the teacher pulled all the 6th graders together to talk about their role this year in the classroom. She is in a 4th-6th grade class and the teacher explained that the 6th graders are the “class leaders” and with that leadership came a great deal of responsibility. Their job was to make the classroom the best that it could be, and to set an example for the younger children. And when there was something they didn’t like or thought they could improve they should take the lead and suggest changes!
Claire took her responsibility seriously and set about bossing the younger kids around, enforcing the classroom rules with no room for exception, and taking on enormous and unrealistic workloads for group projects in order to “lead by example.” It’s no surprise that after two weeks she was not only exhausted, but also unable to meet her project deadlines. To make matters worse, at the end of each week the younger children met to offer “praise” to classroom leaders they appreciated and my daughter was never recognized! (We can only imagine how the children felt about her intense focus on rule-breaking and severe accountability.)
She said to me, “I feel like every other 6th grader is great at Leadership and I just don’t get it. It’s like they are all the edge pieces of a puzzle and easy to put together and I am the middle piece that goes in last!”
Claire was making some classic mistakes. First, she was confusing management with leadership. While managers know rules need to be followed, great leaders know that most rules have exceptions and limitations. While managers understand the importance of accountability when it comes to guaranteeing performance outputs, great leaders know that real learning and development mean letting people fail and learn lessons through experience. While managers understand that compliance requires discipline, great leaders know that what really motivates people is a feeling of confidence and empowerment.
In our book Evolutionaries: Transformational Leadership, we studied the characteristics that transformational leaders have in common. What we learned is that Evolutionary leaders are comfortable with the notion of having more than one leadership “identity” – that there are times when they will step back and be a partner, or even a follower, in order to reach the goal. This is because Evolutionary leadership is not about authority and power, but instead about developing great teams and accomplishing great things. Developing great teams starts with developing strong team members who are skilled, confident, collaborative and ambitious. Accomplishing great things means communicating a clear and compelling vision, motivating people to follow that vision, and rewarding people for their efforts and sacrifices.
In his last years, C.K. Prahalad, Professor of Strategy at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, taught his students that the best leaders “…understand the importance of nonconformity.” They understand that real leadership is about “change, hope, and the future.”
Getting “Ahead” in Leadership
Given what I have learned about transformational leadership, I gave my daughter my best advice:
1) Instead of saying to a younger student in class, “Hey, you have one day left to meet your deadline, you better get to work on your spelling words right now,” try instead saying, “Hi Cassie, I just wanted to check in to see how you are doing – what is your plan for meeting your spelling work deadline this week? Is there anything you need that I can help with?” Work from the belief that people know what they need to do, and that you believe in their ability to do it.
2) Instead of taking on lots of work to show people how it’s done, ask your team, “How do you suggest we divide up this work so we can achieve our learning goals?” Leaders shouldn’t do more work – they should guide the team in learning through doing the work. Your job as a leader is to ensure that your team is developing and growing. They can’t do that if they don’t do the work and shoulder the burden.
3) Sometimes being a leader means letting people fail. You may see that someone is going to miss a deadline or fail to fulfill team expectations. You can try encouraging them, supporting them, and asking them lots of good questions, but in the end sometimes they choose not to do the work, and they will face consequences for that decision. Sometimes people have to fail in order to learn. Watching them do this is one of the hardest parts of being a leader.
So, in a nutshell – ask a LOT more questions, offer oodles of encouragement, provide support and advocacy, but don’t carry the load for other people or they will never learn to stand on their own. My daughter said, “You mean that’s leadership?” I said, “Yeah! Pretty cool, huh?”
She responded, “Geez mom, that’s easy!”