Why We’re Scared to Lead

I think she almost laughed at me. Kind of blurted an involuntary guffaw. But then my Teaching Assistant followed up her involuntary non-verbal display with sincere verbal reassurance.

We were recapping the last 3 classes, all of which were led by students themselves. We were in strong agreement that the classes had gone well (as I had written in last week’s RFL blog). I shared with her, “A voice in my head worries that they’re going to wonder, ‘shouldn’t he be teaching?'” And that’s what precipitated what I took as the guffaw. She explained (I’m paraphrasing), “Dan, No offense, but I think they listen better to each other and to multiple voices, than to you.”

She wasn’t laughing at me, but I am! Isn’t this every parent’s worry, “How will my kids make the right choices if I don’t help them?” This is a voice in every supervisor’s head, “They’re paying me to know, to lead, to instruct, to direct. Won’t they (my workers — and what if my MANAGER finds out?!) lose respect for me and not pay attention to me if I let them lead?” In other words, we feel that we need to justify our existence (okay, maybe YOU don’t) by actively, intelligently, demonstrably directing activities.

But leadership is fundamentally about creating your own obsolescence. If it’s about anything, it’s about empowering others to lead. It’s walking, then jogging, then running down the street, and then letting go of the back of your kid’s bicycle seat and letting them pedal away . . . sometimes to fall. Yep. But it’s about them pedaling.

I remember a great session I had with the Google management team in Ann Arbor where we were cleaning the slate of the need to be the omniscient-supervisor-in-charge. Instead, I was asking them: “What if you pushed the envelope on empowerment?” I asked: “If you were really serious about letting these (amazing!) Googlers loose, what would you do?” I remember that meeting ten years ago as if it were yesterday for two things. One, their genuine enthusiasm to take the challenge, the risk, the step to free people to lead. And, then I remember one of them fascinated with the idea of letting his staff people take turns doing his job fully, for a full day. I’ve always wondered if he did.

Tuesday I will “teach” my grad students again. I will be the authority. But I am mindful that there’s no fully going back. I don’t want to. I want THEM

to lead with THEIR best selves.

  • Somewhere in this discussion could be the on going debate as to whether it is better to teach by letting the student express themselves as they wish with no limitations of a disciplined approach, or whether they should be taught principals, standards, and given well fashioned exercises to hone those skills. Does a person need to scream before they can sing? There are things leaders need to know. It is not all an art. Although in art school one comment about my work was that I broke the rules we were given and yet it looked good. In education you need both. The next lecture is your time to weight those presentations and speak of the goods and the bads, the pluses and the minuses. If you cannot say something to improve what your students have done, then they need another teacher.

  • What I can add is the way what I have expressed above is often stated in business circles, can you Dan, add value?

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