Most powerful act of leadership is giving it away: leadership that matters is leadership that is sustained. Sustaining leadership requires a plan for distributing it to others
It is argued that one of the most significant acts of leadership in our nation’s history was the resignation of George Washington as commander-in-chief in 1783. In the words of historian Gordon S. Wood, “This self-conscious and unconditional withdrawal from power and politics was a great moral action, full of significance for an enlightened and republicanized world, and the results were monumental.”
Jacob Neddleman, in his book, “The American Soul, Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders,” continues this reasoning by adding: “The most influential actions of the most influential man in American history are movements of stepping back and the surrender of personal power. The most decisive actions of America’s greatest symbol of will are actions of letting go.”
Could it be that the leadership that matters most is purposeful non-action?
Perhaps so. Andy Hargreaves and Dean Fink, writing in the April 2004 issue of Educational Leadership, point out that leadership that is not sustainable is useless. They share seven principles of sustainable leadership, among them the ideas that sustainable leadership requires, from day one, a plan for the succession of leadership and that leadership can only be sustained if it is distributed.
Leaving behind good leaders
Writing in this same issue, Michael Fullan emphasizes that “the main mark of successful leaders is not their impact on student learning at the end of their tenure, but rather the number of good leaders they leave behind who can go even further.”
Just in case I haven’t beaten you over the head enough with this thought, consider the words of Ronald Heiftetz and Marty Linsky, again writing in the April 2004 Educational Leadership: “Most people would rather have the person in authority take the work off their shoulders … But the real work of leadership usually involves giving the work back to the people who must adapt, and mobilizing them to do so.”
By resigning his position at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War and again by refusing to seek a third term as president, George Washington ensured that his leadership mattered because he gave the work back to others. But the real wisdom behind this “inaction” is that he knew there were others who would carry on.
Wisdom of the group
Needleman points out that the framers of America were men of disparate backgrounds and hopes. But in working together to create the documents that serve as America’s spine (The Declaration of Independence, The Constitution, The Bill of Rights) they did a remarkable thing. They made a super-human effort to listen to each other as they trusted that the wisdom of the group was greater than the wisdom of any individual.
Because they had learned so much from seeking understanding of each person’s point of view, our founders learned that “the art of the future is the group. The intelligence and benevolence we need can only come from the group, from associations of men and women seeking to struggle against the impulses of illusion, egoism and fear.”
The parallels between what our founders knew and what we’ve learned about leadership that matters for schools are powerful–especially when the concept of moral imperative is added to the mix. America’s founders knew that a republican democracy could only thrive when it was not just a democracy of personal preference, but also a democracy of conscience. Educational researchers have learned that for a school system to thrive it must have a collective moral purpose.
To me these parallels are incredibly reassuring. Leadership that matters is leadership that is sustained. Sustaining leadership requires distributing it. Leaders are created through the purposeful action of listening to others while discovering higher “truths.” The most powerful act of leadership may be to give it away to others. The mythic wisdom of America’s founders is supported by educational research on leadership.
A wonderful legacy
Heifetz and Linsky tell us that “the problems that require leadership are those that the experts cannot solve.” No wonder leadership matters. What a wonder that America’s founders provide such a legacy of how to lead. Makes me proud to be both an American and a school leader.
George Manthey is a professional learning executive for ACSA.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Association of California School Administrators
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group