Leadership: The Risks and Rewards of Learning to Lead
As I sat down to start this blog, I knew that I wanted to write about leadership. Most days I am traveling to work with schools all across the country, and through my work I am learning how to be a leader from some of the best ones out there. But how did they become great leaders? Why did they choose this path? Would they choose it again and why? If they could go back and give advice to themselves as a new leader, what would it be? What have been their greatest rewards?
I am often asked if I get tired of traveling, and the honest answer is yes. But the real answer is that the rewards of service outweigh the demands and risks. For me, the reward is the opportunity to make a difference for others—students, teachers, colleagues, etc. As we get further into this new school year, the opportunities for leadership will continue to present themselves. How will you respond?
“Leadership is action, not position.” — Donald H. McGannon
Leadership comes in many forms and always with risks and rewards. Anyone can be a leader. Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, the authors of Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading, provide very useful and practical information along with real-life examples that connect theory to practice, including many opportunities to reflect on current leadership practices while considering work with different stakeholders on a variety of important initiatives. Reading this book provides a reflective lens around leadership styles and how those styles change given the task or initiative and the amount of change it will cause in the organization.
According to Heifetz and Linsky (2002), “Leadership is not the same as authority . . . Of course, exceeding your authority is not, in and of itself, leadership. You may be courageous and you may have vision, but these qualities may have nothing to do with getting people to grapple with hard realities” (p. 25). We often hear a strong leader described in those terms—visionary, courageous, charismatic, etc.—but if we consider the information presented in this book, strong leadership is represented by those who can not only cause change to happen but who can also deal with the danger and sense of loss that accompanies that change. Strong leaders must possess a variety of skills that will assist them in providing leadership that is differentiated to meet all of those needs.
So what’s the danger? Let’s take a look at a few key points from the book, and examine why stepping up to lead can be such a dangerous act.
- Adaptive challenges versus technical problems. This is the difference between first- and second-order change and the importance of leaders being able to manage the change process. Many leaders start making changes without considering the implications and how to create an environment where people willingly make the change. We know that we can’t force people to do anything, so creating that culture for change and growth is critical to the viability of any initiative. To create real and sustainable change requires a break from past practices, a shift in paradigm, and a different perspective. “Without learning new ways—changing attitudes, values, and behaviors—people cannot make the adaptive change necessary to thrive in the new environment.This can be a scary place for leaders. Consider a big change that you were asked to make. Did you feel lost? Incompetent? Angry? Change is messy and can cause people to experience all of these feelings and more. Now, what if you are the leader causing all of the change?
- The importance of questioning and its relationship with leadership. We need to keep asking questions of ourselves along with the people in our organization in order to help us get closer to the truth. This leads organizations to the need to really question each other and themselves and examine motives, measure the impact of the change or initiative, and own the resulting losses. As leaders, how do we use questioning to build capacity while uncovering knowledge and skill gaps? How do we use it to build a growth mindset in others and ourselves? And, how do we handle being questioned? Again, this is where the risk of leadership comes into play. Making yourself vulnerable and open to questions can be a frightening experience. But if done within a culture for learning, it can become the mechanism for reflection, growth, and improved communication. In the context of the change process, that is a substantial reward.
- Leadership is a series of choices that encompass both risk and reward. The book’s last chapter, Sacred Heart, was the perfect ending and really speaks to how the “realism must capture both the ugly and the amazing in our lives, unvarnished” (p. 226). The book reinforces why many of us have chosen a leadership path—we want to make a difference in the lives of others. One of the best parts of the book is the real-life examples used to illustrate the different points. Having these examples that move from theory to practice are helpful for making the application to situations we all experience.
Heifetz and Linsky write in their book’s introduction: “Leadership is worth the risk because the goals extend beyond material gains or personal advancement. By making the lives of people around you better, leadership provides meaning in life. It creates purpose” (p.3). As leaders, we must be willing to accept the risks in order to ensure that a measurable difference is being made for others. That is the reward. As I pack for another road trip, I look forward to the opportunity to continue learning from the leaders and colleagues who I am fortunate to work with and who make a difference for others.