Leading and Following

Each of these people is good at something different… let them drive sometimes

One of my rules of thumb is that you can tell how healthy a college’s culture is by how often the college’s president has his or her picture in the magazine and online. The more megalomaniacal the graphic presence, the more oligarchical the institution is likely to be. I’ve worked for places in which the leader had to take credit for every single thing, surrounded by his anonymous “people.” Those workplaces are both personally miserable and organizationally ineffective.

One of the goals of leadership should be to surround yourself with people far superior to you in whatever that thing is that they do, and to take every opportunity to push them to the front, so that their best talents shine. And this is not merely a public strategy, this should also be operational strategy. The leader’s role is to hold the mission, to measure actions against the mission, to assemble the best possible team to advance the mission, and to use what charisma she or he has to rouse others to stay strong and join the cause. The leader’s role is also to follow… to follow the recommendations of people who know more, to follow the guidance of those who’ve immersed themselves in the data and the practices of their fields.

For decades, I’ve wished that presidential candidates were required to name the entirety of their cabinet prior to the election. I know that’s unfair to those cabinet nominees, who have to be public with their willingness to leave their current positions even with the uncertainty of an election ahead. But we deserve to know who a candidate believes should be our nation’s Attorney General… our Secretary of Defense… our Secretary of the Treasury. We deserve to know in advance whether an administration will be filled with intellectual leaders, professional practitioners, party holdovers, or personal sycophants.

In our time of COVID, it’s especially important for our leaders to know when to follow. This is not a political opponent with a strategy to outwit, and it’s not a business cycle to be timed correctly. It’s just a mindless virus that neither knows nor cares what we want, going about its daily business in a way that’s incompatible with our own. This is the time we follow… follow the guidance of the epidemiologists and public health experts who have decades of experience in studying other outbreaks, and have learned what has and has not worked.

Leadership is not always (perhaps not even usually) about exerting one’s will. Leadership is about surrounding yourself with smart people, and then listening to their recommendations in service to a common goal.