What Are You Leading For?

A recent conversation I had with a dean of a community college got me thinking about leadership styles. Google “leadership styles” and you get over 17 million hits. But really, it’s not that complicated. This conversation crystallized the meaning of leadership for me, and it’s what I call legacy leadership.

A student at this dean’s college wanted to appeal a failed grade. Of all the considerations the dean had to take into account, one stood out for me: if he allowed this student to pass without having met the course objectives, it devalued the hundreds of thousands of diplomas hanging on the walls of students across the province and country. He recognized that his decision – the exercising of his power – takes place in the context of something greater than himself. That recognition both tempers and hones his use of that power, much like a grinding stone both sharpens and, overused, wears down the blade. This kind of legacy leadership wields power that, like the sharpened blade, is a more precise instrument that must be used with care and restraint.

Legacy leadership – we could also call it stewardship – allows leaders to take a broader and longer-term perspective, and helps them in many aspects of the role:

• Decision making: having a clear sense of purpose and perspective clarifies the many competing interests that can bog down decisions. Seeing the big picture and recognizing your responsibility to a wider community of stakeholders promotes a more measured and intentional response.
• Work commitment: recognizing the impact you have and the difference you are making helps keep you going when times get tough. And times inevitably get tough. Having a strong sense of purpose is like having a north star guiding you through rough waters.
• Team alignment: helping your team see the impact of their efforts and the purpose of their work helps them align and find common ground. Seeing a common purpose helps people avoid the trap of making assumptions about others’ priorities and intentions.

Legacy leadership is about getting back to basics. It’s about taking the long view and carefully calibrating the use of our power, for the benefit of all stakeholders, past present and future.