What is a Leader?
“Clarifying the value system and breathing life into it are the greatest contributions a leader can make.”
Dr. Randy Quinn and Linda J. Dawson, senior partners
AGI Aspen Group Intl, LLC. July 2021
Few of us have lived in times such as those we have shared during the two years just past. The world and nation likely have faced more serious and more prolonged crises, but few events have so disrupted life with virtually no warning whatsoever.
Some challenges can be anticipated and planned for. Both leaders and managers understand this. They build contingency plans to combat such predictable challenges when they occur. Economic fluctuations is an example.
But what about those life events that seemingly defy our ability to anticipate? Who could have predicted 24 months ago, with stock markets humming along at then-record levels and unemployment at all-time lows, that life throughout the entire world would become so devastatingly disrupted by an unseen and virulent enemy?
It is during the upheaval caused by such unanticipated catastrophes that we are forced to recognize the value of leaders and their role in not only navigating the current crisis, but also in helping avoid the next invisible and uninvited threat.
True leaders anticipate what could be the reality of the future based on actions from the present. They do not dwell exclusively on the potential calamities that could occur in that hypothetical future (cataclysmic meteorite impact comes to mind in this category), but they also see vast advantages that could be realized if people living in the present can be persuaded to envision future possibilities. Elon Musk? Jeff Bezos?
One of the best definitions of leadership we have ever heard is this:
A leader is one who takes people to a place where otherwise they would never go.
Leadership requires foresight. It requires imagination. It requires a keen understanding of both the past and present, along with a vision and commitment to create something better. It requires deep conviction that every decision we make now has consequences for the future. A leader takes the people they lead and serve, by the hand, and leads them forward.
AGI is known primarily for its work in helping boards build structures for good governance. Coherent Governance is the specific structure—or operating system—we use to help boards govern at a high level. The system works; there is ample proof of that fact.
But we always have acknowledged that no system of governance, including Coherent Governance, is any better than the people who are trying to make it work. If a group of people cannot work effectively together, the system they are trying to use will not overcome their dysfunction. If board members are not sincere in their commitment to lead toward a common vision, their system will not compensate for their lack of commitment. If people insist on limiting their focus to the present and fail to look beyond today’s crisis du jour, their system will not push them into the future. Governing systems—again, including Coherent Governance—are tools. A system of any kind is a means to an end. It is how people use those systems that adds value to the organization. Frankly:
A great system in the hands of fools will produce nothing of value.
So just what does all this mean for the challenge to govern well?
- LEAD AND SERVE THEIR OWNERS: Take your owners to a place that otherwise they would never go. You are more than a passive representative of your community’s biases and prejudices; you are a committed leader and servant. That’s a great deal more important than limiting yourself by representing the most vocal among your owners.
- BE AUTHENTIC: If your governing system is going to deliver on its promise, you and others who are using it must be more than technicians. Boards using CG cannot continue to make every decision they made about operational “stuff” in their old world. The system is not made to accommodate such in-the-weeds pretense of governing.
The ‘joy of making decisions’ is not leadership. A board meeting’s success is not measured by the number of decisions the board makes. Your superintendents are well-prepared to make some very high-level decisions, and they should be permitted and expected to make them in alignment with your policies. If they are not trusted to make them, maybe this board has the wrong superintendent.
- THINK BIG: The board is not elected to solve every “constituent’s” problem. You have a complaint department in your district, and that is where most issues should be handled. Overarching every small problem is a larger value, one that should be defined by policy. Deal with the big stuff at the policy level rather than the small stuff at the fix-it level. Extrapolate up and deal with small issues at a high level.
- STAY AHEAD OF THE CURVE: Think into the future. Think consequences. Every action has a consequence. Anticipate how actions of today will affect tomorrow’s reality. We don’t do what we do in a vacuum.
- GET BEYOND “ME”: Boards are groups of individuals, but each member is one of something larger than the sum of its members. Some don’t always act like members of a group. Instead, they perform as if they are the center of the universe, allowing their individual needs and biases to drive their actions.
True leaders transcend themselves for the good of the whole. People who feed their own egos at the expense of the group of which they are a member, and at the expense of the organization they pretend to govern, hardly can be considered leaders of anything. They lead a parade of one. The losers are the board and those whom it serves.
For board members and administrators who are charged with creating meaningful futures for the thousands of young people whose future success depends on us, the burden is enormous.
It is our role and our responsibility not only to skillfully play the hand we have been dealt in real time, but also to exercise the foresight to envision a future that will be shaped by our decisions of today.