Sunday, November 1, 2009

Leadership - Not a Spectator Sport

Every now and then go away, have a little relaxation, for when you come back to your work your judgement (sic) will be surer;…. Go some distance away because the work appears smaller and more of it can be taken in at a glance, and a lack of harmony or proportion is more readily seen.” Leonardo Da Vinci as quoted in Wisdom of the Ages: 60 Days to Enlightenment by Wayne Dyer

Leadership is a participative exercise, not a spectator sport. There's really only one way to learn and grow as a leader and that is to get out of your chair and do it. And then pay attention to what happened and try again. It's the only way to learn what really works and the only way to develop your own style of leadership.

One component of leadership is balance though there are many different balancing acts that leaders must learn through experience. Below are three stories that have helped me work on one specific balancing act.

*Early in my career on two different occasions I found myself cleaning residence halls. My title at the time was Associate Dean of Students and it had not occurred to me that ‘other duties as assigned’ included scrubbing the bathrooms in one hall one year and sweeping all the rooms and hallways in a different hall another year. However, the issue was simple in both cases; if I wanted the residence halls to be ready for Move-In, my participation was required.

*On another occasion, my title was Director of Alumni Services and I was part of the Development Division. I was working with several women, all of whom had a secretarial title, to complete a large mailing for the Annual Fund. A colleague who also had a ‘big’ title came through, observed for a moment and then said, “Well, Gage, it’s good to see you can do menial labor too.” I was appalled. The others were not surprised. None of us made a comment.

*I listened to a conversation between two colleagues. Colleague 1 was my peer, an Associate Dean responsible for a large, complex department. She was the most egalitarian person I’ve ever met. She, quite literally, wouldn’t ask someone to do something she wouldn’t do. Colleague 2 was our boss and she was frustrated with the amount of time Colleague 1 was spending at the copy machine. Her comment was “I’m not paying you the amount you earn to make copies. Other people should be doing that.”

Together these form the outlines of a lesson on balance. Sometimes leaders need to pitch in and do the dirty work. We should never be above moving the tables, stuffing the envelopes, or when necessary cleaning up after, or before, the event. And yet in a leadership role, we are in fact paid to do, or assigned to, or have taken on, a different set of duties We have to find a way to be part of the work that is being done and yet not forget that we have a responsibility for the bigger picture.

I’m pretty sure there’s only one way to learn this lesson and that’s to get in there and try to figure it out. And then to step away and see if we got it right. And then to try it again. Definitely not a game for spectators.

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