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Friday, December 3, 2010

Follow The Yellow Brick Road

I have served as a formal leader since I was 24 years old and given the keys to the school building and entrusted with leading a small elementary school in Stonington, Maine - many years ago.

Since that auspicious beginning, at an age when I didn't know what I didn't know, I've studied the subject of leadership with great interest in improving my skills and maximizing opportunities to make a difference in the lives of others. There's certainly an immense reservoir of research and opinions on leadership. A simple Google search seeking books on leadership discovered over 79 million results!! It seems like I've read a quarter of them.

There have been many texts that have offered insight on the challenges and issues facing leaders. Several have subsequently provoked changes in my views on leadership. James McGregor Burns and Warren Bennis are among the few writers who have distinguished themselves from the trove of authors and made a considerable impression on my perspectives. Yet, the source of perhaps the most enlightened advice on leadership was not a book, but an old movie. I'll explain the connection between this famous movie and leadership.

When I first watched The Wizard of Oz I was a young child. That initial screening produced great fear. I was scared of the flying monkeys that threatened Dorothy and her troupe of fellow adventurers, and not too fond of the Wicked Witch. As I grew older and watched the movie over time, I was able to perceive and understand more of the plot and the development of the characters. It made more sense to me.

The Wizard of Oz is a classic film and its been viewed by nearly everyone. We all remember Dorothy and her dog Toto being swept up by a tornado in Kansas and plunked into nowhere. She treks off on the yellow brick road to find the Wizard of Oz for assistance in returning home. Along the way she befriends a lion, a scarecrow, and a tin man. They too are in quest of something they lack. The tin man wants a heart, the lion hopes for courage, and the scarecrow desires a brain. After a succession of risks and challenges, warding off flying monkeys and terrible witches here and there, they finally arrive at Oz. During their meeting with the great wizard, Toto peels back the curtain and Dorothy and her companions are startled and disappointed to find that the great wizard is nothing more than an ordinary man projecting himself as an omnipotent, all-knowing wizard. They express their dissatisfaction and despair, feeling hopeless in their search for answers.

Ah, but this is the part that is so meaningful to me. Just when the travelers are convinced that the man is a fraud and all is lost, he explains to them that he can't give them what they want, and in fact, they already possessed the qualities and direction they thought they lacked. The lion had previously demonstrated his courage when he fought off the attacking monkeys. The tin man exhibited his heart when he agreed to join Dorothy to care for her on her adventure. The scarecrow exercised his brain when he cleverly out-foxed the monkeys and witches who threatened Dorothy. And, finally, Dorothy had the power to return home all along, by clicking her ruby red slippers together.

The point I extracted from all of this - a leader does not possess any wonderful wisdom, mysterious mastery, magical wands or fairy dust that can be used to transform people into something other than what or who they are. Instead, an effective leader works to help people find their potential and capacity - just like the wizard did.

In contrast, there was a school of thought on leadership in the mid 1900's referred to as The Great Man Theory. Those subscribing to that theory considered effective leaders as great men who wield the sheer power of their persona to shape people and events. Such leaders (Churchill, FDR, Eisenhower...)  were considered to have magnetic charisma, superior intellect, and indomitable strength that distinguished them from others. The belief was that leaders were born, not made.

If anyone in Green Island was hoping for a savior superintendent they were left with bitter disappointment. Rather than a Great Man leader, I have opted to follow what other researchers on leadership have coined as Servant Leadership. Wikipedia explains servant leadership as follows: "Servant-leaders achieve results for their organizations by giving priority attention to the needs of their colleagues and those they serve. Servant-leaders are often seen as humble stewards of their organization's resources." At the end of the movie, The Wizard of Oz resembled a servant leader. He was able to hold a mirror of sorts up to Dorothy and her companions to reveal that they already had what they needed, they just weren't conscious of it. That self-discovery will be essential for us to experience success at Heatly by meeting our potential and reaching our capacity. It will require a leader who listens, nurtures growth, shows tolerance, practices patience and accommodation, exercises praise and reinforcement, stimulates thought, communicates empathy, provides orientation and direction, offers support and helpful feedback - and knows when to get out of the way.

That's what I aspire to do in Green Island. Time will tell.

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