what is leadership?
Leadership is at once a process of self-actualization, a practice of evidence-based decision-making, and an applied system of ethics. Leadership is simultaneously deeply personal and attentive to the needs of the collective, requiring humility, bravery, and vulnerability. It is a life-affirming practice of taking risks for the benefit of our world. Bringing one’s dreams to life is no easy matter—relationships must be built, strategy must be developed, and context must be understood. A leader is a role model and coach for others who aspire to embrace their humanity in all its rawness and awesome potentiality.
Below are four frames I use to guide my leadership.
vulnerability is my true north
The wisest leaders I know draw their strength from a deep reservoir of wisdom and compassion accumulated through mistakes and disappointments. On this basis, I find the concept of authenticity-through-adversity an especially compelling model for my own leadership. In Discover Your True North (2015), Bill George writes, “The way you deal with your greatest adversities will shape your character far more than the adversities themselves. Much like iron is forged by heat, your most significant challenges and your most painful experiences present the greatest opportunities for your personal growth” (p. 14). In my experience, I’m most likely to follow the leaders who have used their past mistakes and disappointments to connect with their own humanity and capacity for personal resilience. I struggled with humility as an adolescent and emerging adult, and these struggles forced me to confront my ego or be consumed by it. The major insight I’ve gleaned from the lowest moments of my life is that vulnerability serves as my true north as a leader. I feel like I’m showing up in the world authentically when I am brave enough to allow myself to be fully seen, flaws and rawness and all. Brené Brown expounds upon this idea in Dare to Lead (2018): “Vulnerability is not winning or losing. It’s having the courage to show up when you can’t control the outcome” (p. 19). This is critical for being a relational leader, who must remain curious about themselves and others around them. I find resonance with Brown’s formulation of remaining vulnerable by exercising curiosity. As I develop as an authentic leader, I will need to continue to practice being willing to embrace and share my imperfections with others. Leaders need to stay engaged in ambiguous contexts in which there is no clear path forward, and a critical component of value-centered leadership is using challenging situations to strengthen one’s commitment to those values. As I’ve come to accept my own imperfections, I knocked down a false self-conception and established a genuine and grounded way of being in the world.
it’s always about systems
Authentic leadership also resonates with the practice of systems thinking. David Stroh argues in Systems Thinking for Social Change (2015) that for systems thinkers, “[l]earning is a more powerful mind-set than knowing because it enables us to keep adapting in the face of new information and conditions” (p. 22). This fits with my experience that true leaders are open and humble, allowing them to be flexible. This degree of honesty and self-knowledge facilitate an honest appraisal of an authentic leader’s role in a broader system because “a systems story uncovers how people contribute, albeit unwittingly, to their own problems despite their best intentions” (p. 35). When we lead authentically, we embrace the fact that our personal stories “shape our identity, communicate who we are and what is important to us, and move others to act” (p. 30). This fondness for the power of stories reflects what Peter Northouse, in Leadership: Theory and Practice (2019), calls “the intrapersonal perspective, which… emphasizes a leader’s life experiences and the meaning he or she attaches to those experiences as being critical to the development of the authentic leader” (p. 254, emphasis in original). From this perspective, a leader’s life stories—and their relationship with them—are their greatest asset. In a complex organization like an independent school, it’s critical for a school leader to understand the interrelated components and how those subsystems are integrated. This big-picture perspective allows a leader to find opportunities for connections, identify underutilized or overstretched resources, discover efficiencies and optimizations that could scale up, and to evaluate a proposed initiative’s impact on the entire school ecosystem. There is an implicit energy tradeoff between exploring new ideas and sustaining existing priorities, and an imbalance can result in a school that is either fragmented or static. In all of the educational communities I’ve belonged to, bandwidth has been an essential factor for school leaders to manage in order to maintain steady organizational growth. This means considering the gap between my vision and my current reality, or what Peter Senge calls “creative tension” (p. 150) in The Fifth Discipline (2006).
attend to power and privilege
Effective leadership must also be deeply grounded in ethics, which requires attending to power and privilege. I agree with Meira Levinson’s (2015) rejection of ideal moral theories because they “tend to assume such characteristics as universal compliance and absence of contextual injustices such as racism” (p. 18). Miranda Fricker provides a non-ideal theoretical framework for understanding the operation of power and the role of identity and prejudice in Epistemic Injustice (2011). She would describe a leader’s exercises of social power as “agential operations of power,” but notes that this “power is already a structural phenomenon, for power is always dependent on practical coordination with other social agents” (p. 11). This means that actions I take in any leadership capacity occur in a broader societal ecosystem, which implies that a generalized notion of power cannot serve as my primary analytical tool for decision-making. Fricker writes, “Whenever there is an operation of power that depends in some significant degree upon such shared imaginative conceptions of social identity, then identity power is at work” (p. 14, emphasis in original). There is no doubt in my mind that my perceptions of others are impacted by “the ethical poison… of prejudice” (p. 22, emphasis in original), which means that I must practice self-awareness as a leader to interrogate my own implicit biases. Fricker’s conceptualization of “identity prejudice” (p. 27) resonates with me as I reflect on this situation. Charles Mills’ analysis of “white ignorance” fits cleanly into Fricker’s framework. Mills notes that “the category of the ‘savage’” (p. 26) in reference to Native Americans is salient for white Americans, who justify moral harm by “seeing things through the concept itself” (p. 27, emphasis in original), warping our perspective. As a leader, I aspire to Mills’ subversion of the distorting logics of whiteness: “Only by starting to break these rules and meta-rules can we begin the long process that will lead to the eventual overcoming of this white darkness and the achievement of an enlightenment that is genuinely multiracial” (p. 35).
stay grounded in the ethics of care
Nel Noddings (2003) develops care ethics as a framework for understanding moral reasoning in the context of human relationships. Care ethics views relationships rather than individuals as the fundamental unit of ethical analysis, which inspires me to resists individualism as leadership. She writes, “[C]aring is always characterized by a move away from self… Caring involves stepping out of one’s own personal frame of reference into the other’s” (pp. 16, 24). Noddings provides two criteria for how an observer might judge the extent to which caring is present: “[T]he action (if there has been one) either brings about a favorable outcome for the cared-for or seems reasonably likely to do so” and “the one-caring… acts in a nonrule-bound fashion in behalf of the cared-for” (p. 25). In her view, there is a “characteristic variability” (p. 25) in the actions of the one-caring. As part of caring across racial difference, it’s important to me to adopt an anti-racist approach to student discipline emphasizing restorative justice and centering the student’s wellbeing and growth. Anti-racism must be central to my system of educational ethics: as a white teacher, I know that I will perpetuate racial inequity unless I attend carefully to identity prejudice. Only then can I truly establish caring relationships with all of my students.
Brown, B. (2018). Dare to lead: Brave work, tough conversations, whole hearts. New York: Random House.
Drago-Severson, E., & Blum-DeStefano, J. (2017). Tell me so I can hear you: a developmental approach to feedback for educators. Harvard Education Press.
Fricker, M. (2011). Epistemic injustice: Power and the ethics of knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
George, B. (2015). Discover your true north. Hoboken, NJ: Jossey-Bass.
Levinson, M. (2015). Moral Injury and the Ethics of Educational Injustice. Harvard Educational Review, 85(2), 203-228.
Mills, C. W. (2017). White Ignorance. Black Rights/White Wrongs, 49-71.
Noddings, N. (2003). Caring: A feminine approach to ethics & moral education. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Northouse, P. G. (2019). Leadership theory & practice. Los Angeles: Sage.
Senge, P. M. (2006). The fifth discipline. London: Random House Business.
Stroh, D. P. (2015). Systems thinking for social change: A practical guide to solving complex problems, avoiding unintended consequences, and achieving lasting results. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.