• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


When Others Shine

Two models of leadership.

February 9, 2023

When someone who reports to you really shines, how do you react?

I’ve reported to people who took it as success, or as a sign that they had excellent taste. And I’ve reported to people who were threatened by it. You can imagine my preference.

Chad Orzel has a terrific piece this week about different kinds of outstanding basketball players. There’s the kind that hogs the ball and tries to stand out by suffocating everyone else, and there’s the kind that uses their skill to make sure that everyone gets involved. The first kind can be impressive in a technical sense, but they’re not much fun to have around. The second kind can lift an entire team.

I think the distinction comes down to how someone sees the point of leadership.

If the point of leadership is external validation, then there’s only so much spotlight to go around.

If the point is to make the team better, then getting your folks to the point where they can step up means that you’ve done your job.

I see the parallel most closely with parenting. It’s painful to watch parents cut their kids down in order to feel powerful. The point of parenting should be to get the kids to the point that they don’t need parents anymore. Autonomy is a good thing, even if it goes in directions that you might not have predicted.

Yes, of course, there are limits. Sometimes leaders and parents have to say no. But the limits should be defined by what’s best for the group as a whole. Over time, if everyone does well, the spotlight has a way of expanding. When my people thrive, the world gets brighter.

Fostering growth in your people isn’t a perfect strategy; sometimes folks are so set in their ways, or so damaged by something in their past, that they simply can’t (or don’t want to) grow. I try to give plenty of chances, but there does come a point at which whatever it is that they’re carrying drags down the entire group. Dealing with that is not fun. Happily, I haven’t had to deal with that within the family, but it has happened a few times in work settings. No system is perfect.

Fostering growth requires tolerating a certain amount of error along the way; as any decent teacher knows, mistakes are part of the learning process. To the folks who assume a more dictatorial stance, tolerating errors of growth can look like weakness. It isn’t, but that only becomes clear over time. In the very short term, in a low-trust environment, it’s easy to mistake taking the long view for being out of touch. That’s a dysfunctional interpretation, but as the old line has it, the market can stay irrational a lot longer than you can stay solvent.

Still, I’ll happily take this approach over the alternative. When folks who used to report to me move on to bigger and better things, I take it as a victory. When my kids surprise me with yet another display of brilliance that comes from I-know-not-where, I beam. I don’t think the world suffers from too much achievement.

Chad Orzel is right. High scorers are great, but the really great players also know the value of assists.

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Matt Reed

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