Leadership beyond active duty
After more than seven years away from the leadership literature, and the responsibility for developing and administering leadership development within large organizations, I find myself both teaching about leadership and developing leaders, now in the public sector. Ten years ago I was, when I had time to think about it, often frustrated by the ephemeral nature of leadership and its development, and I find that I see it now as very different.
I’m looking at leadership from beyond the active duty of my own leadership inside organizations, and my responsibility to get my hands dirty in the day to day decisions about individual leaders and teams. What I’m pretty sure of now is that leadership is still dangerously lodged in the myth of the individual, and that it is about people, but not about any one person. A leader is never effective without able colleagues, enthusiastic direct reports, and candid advisers. Even brilliant leaders are fully human, which is to say, they have behavior and beliefs that get in the way of their being fully effective.
I’ve also thought recently that those of us who have lost the will to endure organizational life might make its best leaders. Many older retirees from organizational life (I’m not talking here about official retirement, but the choice to leave organizations for a final time due to lowered tolerance for the ego driven decisions that are too common there) have perspective, experience, and have already fought the good fight long enough not to need to be king of the hill, or queen for a day, or whatever ego driven vision we might once have had about being leaders. We are more willing to collaborate. In fact, we prefer it, as it spreads the responsibility and creativity around. We are more patient, having both grandchildren and health issues that require it. We see the humor in more things, rather than throwing tantrums because they are not going our way. We see the advantages in hiring people smarter than we are, and with whom we don’t have to agree. It’s easier to disagree and remain colleagues, friends, and parents. We can see that our approval or agreement isn’t always helpful or even right.
As boomers officially retire in greater numbers, I hope that some will choose to return to organizational life after exhausting the pleasures of the tennis court or the river cruise. We need leadership from people not so invested in the title of leader, but in the responsibility for enabling greatness throughout organizations.