The perils of charismatic Leadership

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Note: Recently, a friend introduced me to an article by a prominent social scientist about “leading from the middle,” a style which, she argued, was best suited for the operation of contemporary complex institutions. The term was new to me, but it propelled me back into my own past musings about leadership styles which had, until now, gone nameless. Although my focus was specifically on school leadership, our current pandemic crisis underscored the utter failure and destructiveness of a style of leadership which didn’t recognize the value of “the middle,” believing instead only in the charismatic leadership at the top. We are living with the effects of what, in effect, is a cult of personality, one that threatens to drag us all down with it when it inevitably crashes and burns.

In the months before our doors opened at the North Kenwood Oakland Charter School, we made a critical decision about staffing which served us well through the travails of start-up. Most new schools run on the hormonal energies of young staffers, free of obligations of family and the sundry commitments that tend to accumulate with age. We took the opposite path, choosing to begin with a core staff of veterans who could ride out the inevitable crises that afflict new organizations.

Those crises arrived on schedule, beginning with the construction delays that left some of our classrooms without floors as late as two days before the opening of school, followed by the string of break-ins which threatened our newly acquired computers and video equipment. As we had hoped, teaching and learning went on pretty much uninterrupted through these setbacks, thanks to the sense of solidity that our veterans were able to communicate to the students, their parents and to each other.

One learns with experience, that all decisions are, in effect, trade-offs. In this case the trade-off was related to the fact that our wonderful veterans had spent on the average of twenty years working in the Chicago Public Schools. During that time, they had become acculturated to a military style of leadership. In a hierarchical system, orders pass down through the chain of command, and when they reach their destination, obedience is expected. In the school world, this means that disagreement is reserved for teacher’s room grumbling and is not voiced to the originator of the orders.

The problem for us lay in the fact that we were trying to construct a professional community in which teachers’ voices were respected, valued and carried weight in decision-making. There were those who argued that collaborative decision-making was a goal for the future, after the school was on a more solid footing. Early on the school leader needs to act more unilaterally, leaving the teachers to focus on the exigencies of their own classrooms, at least until our work established predictable and energy-saving patterns and routines.

The danger in beginning this way is that you risk having it persist as a mode of operation that is difficult to shed once in place. My preference was for a collaborative style of decision-making from the beginning. I wanted to reinforce the stake our teachers had in our new-born institution, partly as a payback for the incredible investment of time and energy they were making in the enterprise. It was also the case that collaboration suited my own personal style, and, in the end, all philosophies and theories are, in some measure, the product of their creators’ personalities. If you begin with the modest view that most decisions are complex enough to benefit from multiple perspectives, then top-down decision making is not the most effective option.

Given the teachers’ work histories, many of them interpreted this effort to build a collaborative structure as a sign of weak leadership. They preferred being told what to do, complying and retreating to their safe spaces to complain. Most large school systems which operate hierarchically are complaining cultures. Powerlessness finds voice in the staircase and parking lot conversations in which leadership decisions are dissected, discredited and disapproved of. There is no question that in any organization – schools, social agencies, even businesses, there are decisions that should be made by the leadership and not imposed on the limited time and energy of the staff. In the radical participatory days of the late 60’s I sat in on a staff meeting at a newly created experimental college. The meeting was devoted almost entirely to decisions about where to place waste baskets in the building, definitely a decision not worth the collective energy of those assembled. It is not always easy to identify the line of demarcation between trivial and weighty decisions, those that should be made unilaterally and those that call for collaboration. Every seemingly trivial choice carries implications for broader aspects of an organization’s philosophy and operation. This uncertainty leads to excesses like the waste basket debates.

Fast forward five years. The veteran staff members were joined by younger colleagues less acculturated into the existing public school system. The veterans themselves had learned to value their capacity to shape the decisions that drive the school and would resist strongly any effort to limit their role in the collaborative decision-making. Apart from the perennial problems of overwork and lack of time, the staff was a happy one, and the manifestations of the complaining culture were vestigial at worst. Although there were many areas in which the school needed improvement, the entire staff took pride in their students’ academic successes in a challenging academic environment they had helped shape.

It was time for the original leadership to depart. Charter schools operate on five-year contract cycles and our school has just come through its contract renewal successfully. The time felt right for a hand-off of leadership. Ambitious new ventures were on the horizon for the school which could best be placed in new hands which could remain on the scene long enough to see them through. In any case, organizations need different kinds of leadership at different stages of their development. Corporations recognize this in their system of designating project managers who oversee new ventures – the construction of a new plant, for example – and then turning to operations managers to carry on the actual work of the new venture.

The staff was nervous about the announcement of an imminent leadership change. Teachers are, by nature, a rather conservative lot. They value order and predictability and are wary of anything that threatens those virtues. I reassured them that, as a group, they are the strength of the institution and no new leadership was going to challenge the basic values and mission of the school. On the contrary, the only people who could possibly stand as candidates for the directorship were those who recognized the solidity of what was already in place and were willing to build on it.

These words of reassurance were uttered with some trepidation. We all know of successful organizations that have imploded in the course of a leadership change. With great sadness I watched the demise of a small rural school which had become a national model under the directorship of a daring and bold school director who had turned a failing enterprise into a local source of pride. When he left the school began its long, slow slide to oblivion. Similarly, an urban school close to our own, which had made enormous progress over the course of a decade, began a steady decline the moment its principal accepted an important leadership position in the city’s school administration. Usually the decline isn’t instantaneous. There’s enough residual energy banked from the previous leadership to maintain the forward momentum, but eventually the car rolls to a stop and may even begin to roll backwards.

When our school was in the hands of its new leader, a very talented and focused director who was elevated to her new rank from among our own teaching staff, the transition was relatively seamless; the new director consolidated some of the initiatives that were underway when she assumed her new role and began others consistent with the direction in which the school had been moving since its inception. The reassurances we offered the staff turned out not to be empty words after all.  They continued to be pleased with the direction of the school and their role in helping to shape it.

            What is the difference between the two examples of decline following leadership change, on the one hand, and a successful transition on the other? It appears that charismatic leadership, by which we mean leadership driven almost exclusively by the personality of the leader, often bears within it the seeds of its own destruction. When too much of an organization’s energy is bound up in the leader’s presence – in both senses of the word — his or her departure opens organizational wounds that are difficult to heal. For one thing, all the personal connections that the charismatic leader establishes which enrich a school or organization in material, intellectual and human ways are likely to leave with the leader. In addition, the loyalties of staff to the powerful presence which attracted them to the difficult and challenging work are not easily transferable. Nor is the vision the charismatic leader embodies easy to hand off to a successor, in whose voice the message is likely to sound a good deal less rousing.

            But when leaders see their role from the outset as building institutional capacity, it is as if they are preparing for their own departure from the moment of their arrival. They may be able to generate loyalty and a sense of mission among their staff, students and outside supporters, but they are using those gifts not to concentrate power and attention in their hands, but to distribute responsibility, resources and recognition throughout the organization.

 It takes a measure of security on the leader’s part to release his or her hold on the reins of power, a quality that is, sadly, less prevalent than we would like. The superintendent of the rural New Hampshire school district where I worked for many years was one of the rare exceptions, and his personal strengths enabled him to choose not to overwhelm his subordinates, but to delegate to them a considerable measure of control over the district’s budget, so long as they were willing to assume responsibility for the implications of their decisions. Many decades later the positive effects of that decision to eschew a more charismatic and concentrated style of leadership are still evident throughout that district, despite the ascendance of more traditional leadership after his departure.

In the mid-sixties, Bob Moses, whose very name radiated charisma, left his position as the head of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to work in Africa. His reputation for courage in the early and dangerous voter registration work in Mississippi focused national attention on his leadership of the organization. No doubt his reasons for leaving were complex, but among them was the fear that so long as he was in the spotlight the capacity of local people to develop the strength within themselves to propel the movement forward in sustainable ways was inhibited.

This dramatic example from outside our school world is a vivid reminder that charismatic leadership may be the swashbuckling lover who brings excitement into your life before he leaves you, but it is the less flamboyant, steadier husband who builds the more enduring marriage.

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Marv Hoffman

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