I have named this blog, ‘Leading from the Side’ because it sums up my approach to leading a residential college full of young people, aged 17-22. I would argue that young people give very little credence to positional leadership, they aren’t going to follow just because I am called a ‘Principal’! Leading from the side assumes this reality. It also embraces two other aspects of what I believe is essential to leadership: 1) valuing the people that you lead as both knowledgeable and important and 2) understanding that any real influence I have over their behaviour (that will last) comes through the authority I am given in their lives through relationship, not through position. I will unpack these two concepts for today’s blog. While I work specifically in a context with young people that I am leading, I believe you can apply these concepts to any group that you are leading.
We are socialised into thinking that ‘big personalities’ are the ‘natural’ leaders. Throughout my schooling, I sought leadership positions and was often successful. As someone who is outgoing and enjoys socialising, I was told early in my schooling that I was a leader, and served as the President of many student committees. When I look back on that time serving in student leadership, I realise that I am the one that benefited most from those opportunities rather than those that I led. Those experiences have honed my leadership skills, but now in my fifties and in a position as the leader of a small institution, I am even more convinced that titles, or position, does not make you a leader. Let me explain.
When I was a young leader, I thought it was the ‘doing’ that made me the leader. A hive of activity and production, my leadership was busy and visible. As someone who is gifted to be able to talk under water, my leadership was mainly representative and up front. After some 35 years in leadership, I have the security and life experience to ‘be’ a leader, to invest in others behind the scenes and watch them lead. I don’t ‘need’ the position or title to influence those I lead, rather, it is who I am through my relationships with those I lead that shapes their behaviour. John Quincy Adams once said, ‘If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.’ This inspiring rendition of a leader is my own now. I don’t want to lead any longer as the loudest voice; I want to encourage those I lead to become leaders where they are in their everyday lives.
Valuing others’ knowledge and letting them shine
Tonight at a dinner, the students who aspire to be next year’s leaders will give speeches about what they believe they bring to the student community. It is always one of my favourite nights of the year, because hearing what each of the aspiring leaders believe needs to be done at the College in terms of leadership is insightful for me. I learn from their standpoint, from their knowledge. Each year, I work closely with whoever is elected to coach them through the year, to pace themselves, to lead the student body with enthusiasm, integrity and values. It is delightful to see them shine each year, to be congratulated for leading the College after a long year of hard work. That is the most satisfying aspect of leadership for me now: leading from the side so that others shine.