The concept of “leadership” is nebulous, whether it be carried out at Fortune 500 companies, membership organizations, philanthropies, independent schools or any group that sets out to achieve a goal. Today, tens of thousands of books about leadership are available at the click of a mouse. Why are we who lead and work in organizations constantly trying to define leadership and frame it, and in fact, do it successfully? Like you, I know and appreciate leadership when I see it, and I’m disappointed when I don’t.
For the past several years, calls for leadership of our independent schools have grown louder. These have come from the first weeks of the pandemic; through the evolution of diversity, equity and inclusion within our culture; or the ongoing responsibility to ensure our schools provide world-class independent education while simultaneously achieving long-term financial health. That’s why this headline caught my attention: “ 4 Surprising Things Leaders Aren’t Responsible For.”
It’s easy to presume that leaders are responsible for everything, but this pithy and powerful piece from a popular leadership blog demonstrates otherwise. These are the takeaways I thought applied most to school leaders:
1. “Leaders aren’t responsible for results. Leaders are responsible for the people who are responsible for results.”
This statement, while initially jarring, resonates with me upon reflection. When I think about the achievements of organizations I have led, I associate each of them more with the staff and volunteers that were the ones responsible for the outcome. My role in these cases was to support the goal, identify the right people and provide the resources to advance it. Therefore, they were responsible for the result, but I was accountable for achievement of the outcome.
I passionately believe that great organizations are filled with individuals that share a sense of responsibility to the outcomes of the organization they serve and that underperforming organizations have staff that shirk this responsibility.
The article’s author, leadership expert Dan Rockwell, overturns our conventional thinking by differentiating between responsibility and accountability. Ultimately, heads of school, business officers and CEOs are accountable to boards to achieve results, but it is truly those they are surrounded by who are responsible for the results. I passionately believe that great organizations are filled with individuals that share a sense of responsibility to the outcomes of the organization they serve and that underperforming organizations have staff that shirk this responsibility.
Questions for “accountable leaders” include: How will I stop doing other people’s work? How do I honor and reward people who get stuff done? How can I hire the right people? What might I do that impedes progress? How can I improve?
2. “Leaders aren’t responsible for employee engagement.”
Rockwell explains: “You can coerce conformity, but engagement is freely chosen. You can create environments where engagement is more likely.” This framing makes perfect sense to me. Our role as leaders is to create environments where individuals can show up to be their most authentic selves and do their best work in alignment with the mission and strategy of the organization.
So, what is the role of the leader regarding engagement? Rockwell’s suggestion include: hiring for engagement, inviting engagement, rewarding and honoring engagement, coaching for engagement, and punishing and firing for disengagement.” The simplicity of this notion is powerful. Do we really believe we are responsible for motivating and engaging others? Have we spent too much energy with efforts to do so? Where else could we put that energy in our organizations?
3. “Leaders aren’t responsible for making people happy.”
Once again, the leader’s responsibility is to cultivate an environment that allows for goal achievement, supports meaningful work and facilitates team and relationship building. “Happiness is a choice we make for ourselves,” Rockwell reminds us.
A leader must consistently assess organizational culture and work toward the good of the whole rather than trying to satisfy the needs of a few, which ultimately, may never be satisfied.
At an organization where I worked early in my career, a specific group of individuals within the team were perpetually discontent, and it had a negative impact on the entire culture. The organization’s leader called all employees together and challenged us either to contribute to a satisfying organization or to make the decision to leave it. A leader cannot afford to be tone deaf and must consistently assess organizational culture and work toward the good of the whole rather than trying to satisfy the needs of a few, which ultimately, may never be satisfied.
4. “Leaders aren’t responsible to know all the answers.”
Leaders are instead responsible to help people find the answers. Don’t be so willing to answer every question posed to you by staff. Rather, help them identify the resources, solutions and opportunities to find the answers for themselves. Think of how much better off our organizations would be if we opened dialogue, collaboration and discussions to find solutions or innovation together instead of relying on a single individual to have all the answers. I find effective teamwork to be the most refreshing aspect of leadership. If we genuinely believe the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, how can we practice that in our schools every day?
The value of NBOA is to provide resources to our schools in the form of research, professional development, and, yes, perspectives from all of us within our community. Together we find and develop solutions for ourselves and our schools that are stronger and more durable than an answer from one individual.
As I like to say, we who work in independent schools are in the ultimate people business. What is accomplished every day at our schools in fulfillment of our missions is accomplished through people. And simply put, it is the people that leaders are responsible for, those that deliver the education and those that we educate. At the start of a new school year and another opportunity for renewal, I find it liberating to look at the role of leadership in this new light. I hope you do too. And I wish you all an outstanding school year!
Follow NBOA President and CEO Jeff Shields @shieldsNBOA.