A New Year's Resolution
Happy New Year as we ring in 2021 which for many people could not have come any sooner. Many of us have been thinking about the challenges and impact on us this past year and how we are going to transition our lives into the new year. It’s a time we think about turning over a new leaf. We want to do something different, make some type of change. We make New Year resolutions in hopes to embrace new ways of living. Many of the more popular resolutions made are losing weight and exercising, taking better care of personal finances, getting organized, and spending more time with family/friends. We also reflect upon how we can improve the communities we live in.
I generally don’t make New Year resolutions. I’ve always figured that if I want to make a change in my life I would just do it and don’t need to wait until January 1st. But this has been a different year with the impact of the pandemic making this a very different year for me.
I have been writing and teaching (yes, I’m learning to teach asynchronously in the virtual world at the same time!) a new leadership that I will be teaching this semester. The study of and teaching about leadership has always been a passion of mine and so these times have prompted me to think about how am I going to teach leadership in these challenging times. To be frank, it has been downright scary in terms of the lack of leadership I’ve seen and experienced in the last several years especially with what I have seen across the nation in reaction to the pandemic, politics and racial injustice. My faith in humanity has been so rocked and has practically sent me over the edge! Do people really know what good leadership is? Do they ask themselves how can I be a good leader? I digress but will return to this!
While I was working on this course I was doing an incredible amount of research and reading but while doing so, I had this one question that kept nagging at me: Were the students’ experiences in the leadership courses they have participated in beneficial, and did they impact on how they engage in their communities as well as with one another? My fear has been that taking a course taught by many leadership faculty didn’t do much to enlighten students over the years given what I see and have experienced. And this coupled with people who lead from a “power-based, power-centric approach” means that leadership is not understood at all.
So, what is leadership? MacGregor Burns, a leadership philosopher, replied that “Leadership is one of the most observed and least understood concepts.” Indeed, as we always remark that “so-and-so isn’t a leader” but do we really know what the characteristics are that make a good leader? The characteristics we want to see is that a leader is able to develop a vision that brings purposeful change based upon the needs of an organization or community, and is able to develop strategies and establish direction. This is achieved by being authentic and is able to inspire and motivate others and let them know how much they are valued and recognized for their accomplishments. A leader is also able to respond in crises by pulling teams together to develop strategies needed to address a high level of urgency. Finally, a successful leader is able to make changes, whether in an organization or in a community, through consensus as well as by ensuring that everyone is a true partner in the purpose of affecting real change.
Practicing good leadership can be tough. For example, it’s so easy for us to go on and take care of something instead of delegating it to someone who genuinely wants to be a part of the group. I saw a title somewhere that said, “Execute the task, not the person delegated to do it!!” I found this to be pretty humorous but in fact to be very true. If we don’t like what someone did in a group we chastise them in some way and decide you could have done it right if you had just done it yourself! Over time, you just “do it” because then you’ll know it will get done right! Right?
This isn’t good leadership as it impacts how people see you. Can they trust you? Maybe you don’t value people and believe they have nothing to contribute to the team. Leadership is also not about pushing people around, telling them what to do, speaking mistruths, denying or constraining their experiences and actions in an organization or community. These people typically perceive themselves as one of privilege in relation to the other members of the group and they are always front and center. The characteristics are defined as a leader who is always in control, unemotional, able to make immediate decisions, efficient, and is tough-minded. Power, control and self-interests are what ultimately motivate them.
It’s the latter that we’ve all seen displayed not only in the workforce but nationwide. There is the belief that leadership is “top down” and that if you don’t get on the bus with “my vision” then you’re gone. Fear is used as power in controlling what happens instead of collaboration and consensus. It reminds me of the fable, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” where two con men pose as weavers and proclaim they can make such magnificent clothing that are invisible only to those who are stupid or incompetent. The clothes are for the emperor who is someone who is a lavish dresser and he is so obsessed with how he looks he does nothing to manage his kingdom. The emperor also sees this as an opportunity to determine who is loyal to him and who is unfit for their positions. Hired, they set about making the clothes and as the emperor’s staff stop by and “see” the clothes they don’t want to appear “stupid” so they remark how beautiful the clothes are. Finally the emperor himself comes to get dressed and has a processional in the city streets so that people can see his “new clothes.” No doubt, today he would be arrested for indecent exposure!
But what this story conveys is the epitome of poor leadership characteristics. You have an emperor, who because of his vanity, believes in something that cannot be seen. His staff is fearful of saying anything because they feel they can’t go against the emperor because he only listens to what he wants to hear. In fact, when the emperor hears, at the end of the story, a little girl says, “Why he has no clothes on,” and the emperor’s response is to stand even taller and proceed through the streets in his royal nakedness. This is stupidity in its “finest” form of fabric!
How many people today believe in the magnificence of (invisible) clothes? How many swindlers are out there who take from others, and spin mistruths to people who want to be misguided because they are like the emperor’s royal subjects and support these mistruths? Clothing is simply an adornment and what matters is what’s underneath— what matters is what’s in the soul and authenticity of the person. And here we are back to the nexus of what’s been nagging me. How many people are there who have participated in leadership work but still become emperors, swindlers or royal subjects believing in fake adornment and indiscernible ideas?
My continued research took me places that finally reminded me that all is not lost in the idea of what leadership is, and that’s having purpose in making change in the lives of others or in a community. For example, I recently read about a young high school student whose father needed a heart transplant and his mom lost her vision from a softball hitting her eye, and then both parents lost their jobs from the pandemic. The student attended a private school and needed funds to continue attending. 2000 inmates of California's Soledad Prison raised more than $32,000 to ensure that the student remained in private school. It took true leadership for a group of men who were in a book club to become inspired and were able to inspire others to raise money to create a scholarship for this student. Realize that these men were only making 8 cents an hour! These men had been truly inspired in a purposeful mission for someone else. They understood the value of education and what it means to ensure another black male doesn’t make the same mistakes that ultimately landed them in prison.
In a different venue, Adam Silver, NBA commissioner, decided on March 11, 2019 to suspend the professional basketball season when the World Health Organization officially announced that the world was in a pandemic. He recognized the urgency of what was happening as he saw the threat of how the Covid-19 virus was impacting the world…not just here in the U.S. His decisive action, for which he was greatly criticized for, saved lives. People first…not the $8 billion the NBA netted last year.
Finally, I can’t go without talking about Stacey Abrams who after losing the Georgia 2018 gubernatorial race created a nonprofit organization called Fair Fight. Although she has been working on election reform for the past ten years, Stacy started the nonprofit because of her experience with mis-managed elections. As a result, she was able to register over 800,000 new voters which had a significant impact not only on the 2020 presidential election but on Georgia’s senate runoff in 2021. Thanks to Stacy’s leadership efforts and determination has had a tremendous impact in the State of Georgia politically today and in its future. As a news commentator remarked this morning, there has been a “political earthquake” in Georgia — a state that has just elected two Democratic senators!
I could go on and on about stories where people identified a need, checked their egos at the door, organized and truly conveyed purpose-driven leadership. The research for my course made me feel so much better about the selfless acts of others. It helped to dissipate that nagging feeling that was hanging over my head. It also helped me to recognize that what I wrote earlier regarding my disappointment in humanity has been restored with faith from the many great stories of redemption and hope I’ve read. I am now more inspired to teach students how important the value of making purposeful changes is in their future communities. I need to teach them to recognize and learn how to handle who the emperors are and to not be conned by swindlers who are selling snake oil. I want them to learn how to inspire others especially the royal subjects who refuse to see the emperor’s vanity and lack of leadership and find ways to do something about it. But all of this reflection has also compelled me to think seriously about a New Year’s resolution.
Pablo Picasso said, “the meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away to others.” So here goes: my New Year’s resolution is to be a better teacher. I believe my gift has been to provide a space for students to learn about themselves in the context of leadership and give them the tools to be extraordinary leaders in our future communities.
It is a Happy New Year indeed!
Jocelyn Briddell, Ed.D. is our anchor blogger. As you can see, her students are very lucky indeed.