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Is Leadership Losing Its Luster?

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Wednesday, April 5, 2017

We Need Leaders 'Called to Service, Not Status'

Harvard, Yale and Princeton all cite leadership as a quality they want in their students. In fact, most competitive educational institutions tout their ability to attract young people who will wield business and political power in the future.

Susan Cain, the author of the best selling book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking, suggests in a New York Times essay that the "outsized glorification of 'leadership skills' " damages the practice of leadership itself -"it hollows it out, empties it of its meaning."  

She describes students vying to become president of every possible club and organization just to burnish their resumes. She recounts conversations with students who think leadership means authority, dominance and the ability to boss people around. She asserts a well-balanced student body -and a healthy society- needs followers and team players as well as people who go it alone.

"It needs leaders who are called to service rather than to status," she writes, and she thinks people who have influence in education should re-focus their recruitment drives.

Book about leadership proliferate almost daily. Joe Iarocci, who was CEO of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership before founding Cairnway, a consulting organization that promotes servant leadership in organizations, noted in his blog that 1,246 paperbacks on leadership were published in the first 10 months of 2015 alone, and that Amazon then had more than 57,000 books with "leadership" in the title. Amazon recently listed 191,770 "leadership books." Plexus Institute, which features complexity-informed resources, lists dozens of books and articles examining multiple aspects of leadership viewed through a complexity lens.  Prominent among those elements are how to recognize patterns, foster networks, practice adaptive leadership, create conditions where work and those who do it can flourish, and how to achieve all that in the face of uncertainty.  

Many scholars and theoreticians approach the topic in a deeply philosophical way. For instance, Peter Block has written extensively and insightfully about stewardship, servant leadership, culture and community. He calls stewardship a choice to "act in service of the long run" and to "act in service of those with little power." Ronald Heifetz, in his book Leadership Without Easy Answers presents a nuanced examination of the roots of authority, how to lead when situations require it be done without the trappings of power, and the qualities leaders need to develop. Both are scholars of leadership in the realms of business and government and private and public organizations, and both stress the value and vitality of citizenship.

Susan Cain has her own consultancy, the Quiet Revolution, and her own ideas about leadership in the world of work. She notes that Adam Grant, who has written books on what drives people to succeed, has said the most frequent question he gets from readers is how to contribute when you're not in charge, and how to get a hearing for your suggestions. Those, he says, "are the fundamental questions of followership."

Rather than focusing on leadership skills, Cain suggests colleges would serve students and society better if they recruited applicants who value excellence, passion for a field, and a desire to contribute beyond the self. That framework, she says, would attract future artists, poets, scientists and mathematicians who will contribute without wanting to be in charge, as well as those who are leaders already. She also thinks we need to look closely at what we value.

"If we're looking for the students and citizens most likely to attain wealth and power, let's admit it," she writes. "Then we can have a frank debate about whether that's a good idea. "




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