Friday, May 17, 2013

30th Year Reflections/44: Leadership

“His opponents had been certain that Lincoln would fail in this first test of leadership. ‘The construction of a Cabinet,’ one editorial advised, ‘like the courting of a shrewd girl, belongs to a branch of the fine arts with which the new Executive is not acquainted. There are certain little tricks which go far beyond the arts familiar to the stump, and the cross-road tavern, whose comprehension requires a delicacy of thought and subtlety of perception, secured only by experience.’” — Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals

For the better part of a month I’ve been pondering the concept of leadership. My ponderings were triggered by an invitation to be part of a panel discussion at the multi-day Minnesota Library Association Institute for Leadership Excellence (MILE). In preparation for our discussion, MILE leaders gave us a number of questions to consider. Perhaps the hardest question for me was the one most simply stated: how would you define leadership?

I decided not to answer the question by employing specific examples or experiences. Instead, I attempted a more generic approach, one that answered the question by pointing to various pairings, combinations, or opposites: head and heart, light and dark, passion and intellect, art and science, at the front or behind the scenes. I started with this last pairing first, stating that leadership required a lot of hard work and long hours in the background, away from the bright lights, making sure things got done so that others could enjoy the fruit of your labors. At the same time, and with this same combination, I also stated that there were times when it was appropriate to be out front, to be the public face and voice for a particular issue. As the various pairings poured forth I tried to give attendees a sense of how these interacted or related to each other. The image of a delicate dance sprang to mind, one I communicated to those in the room.

I don’t know if my definition found root with those at the Institute or if it made sense. I’m still wrestling with my answer. The image of a dance works for me, or perhaps a ballet, in which there is more than one performer. Leadership does not happen in a vacuum; it is not a solo experience. It engages other individuals or corporate entities in a movement. There is purpose to the dance. Subconsciously, and in a different existential or metaphysical sense, I believe I was reflecting my own ethos, my own understanding of a faith that is beyond a discussion of professional matters but which informs who I am as a professional. One of my favorite authors, C. S. Lewis, provided an image of the dance that no doubt inspired my answer to the leadership question:

In the plan of the Great Dance plans without number interlock, and each movement becomes in its season the breaking into flower of the whole design to which all else had been directed. Thus each is equally at the centre and none are there by being equals, but some by giving place and some by receiving it, the small things by their smallness and the great by their greatness, and all the patterns linked and looped together by the unions of a kneeling with a sceptred love.

You may think it inappropriate to bring matters of faith (or religion) into a discussion about professional leadership. If this is the case, I have no objection. We are free to choose or reject as we will. But I would ask a question in return: what is the foundation, the bedrock idea on which you base a definition of leadership? I would argue that it has to be on something beyond librarianship, something beyond a professional code of ethics, something beyond ourselves. There are any number of transcendent ideas or systems from which to choose. I’ve given you my choice, the one in which I live and move and have my being. For me it is the root of any definition for leadership. Others will find their own answer, their own way. Shall we dance?

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