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Leaders and the Vulnerabilities of Being Visible

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What does it mean to be visible?  Some think it means being out of your office.  An old sign found on some leaders doors was "MBWA", management by walking around.  It represented a philosophy that the leader was gathering data from observing what was happening and was doing it firsthand. An admirable thing. As an added value the leader was not hidden away in an office but was "out and about", visible for all to see and potentially accessible to all.

Surely, it is important to be present around the building and community. It helps develop relationships. It gives leaders multiple opportunities to see the work of teaching and learning in action. It helps leaders understand the "building in action" and allows them to have greater authenticity when they speak about it. Even the interactions at a game or concert or a civic club luncheon or a grocery store has value. These are all good things. 

But, there is a subtle difference between this type of being out and about and what we call "being visible".  That is a personal leadership characteristic that involves openness. Increasingly, leadership calls for one to be inclusive and inviting, to be a collaborator. But, being out front as a leader also makes one vulnerable. Isn't it is natural to protect one's self by holding back and isn't it healthy to establish boundaries? Yes, but for a leader, the heightened challenge is that the action of being protective can create an inauthentic presence, even if unintended. This is not one of those capacities that one can learn in an article, book, or training session.  It is a life-long evolution that requires opening and withdrawing until one finds the right balance. It is a dance of constant attention, a place where painful mistakes can be made and lessons learned.

There are many ways "showing up" plays out in a leader's work.  For the purpose of brevity in a blog post, we chose just one. In his book Meeting Ethical Challenges of Leadership, Craig E. Johnson turned to the work of ethicist Rushworth Kidder's nine checkpoints (pp.202-203). Number 5 is "test for right-versus-right values" and a supporting checkpoint is "truth telling versus loyalty to others and the institution".  

Loyalty cuts both ways as they say.  In many schools and districts, relationships have been built over time.  Principals and superintendents might spend a decade or more working with the same people.  And, more than that, teachers often work with the same cohort of teachers for their entire careers. The relationships become personal. Carpooling, shopping and shared exercise or sports evolve into attending each other's weddings, christenings, bar and bat mitzvahs, vacations, hospital bedsides, and funerals.  In the best of cases, this contributes to a fabric that is woven with trust and loyalty. So what happens when one person takes on a new leadership role or when the fabric is tested by a leader deeply embedded in the relationship network, makes a very tough decision.

Three Examples
Good people have lost their entire career within this sticky wicket.  Why? Let's look at three possible examples. Last year's movie Spotlight offers raw insight into the tug of war between the church's loyalty to itself as an institution and the values it purports to serve and protect the faithful, particularly the children. It took a group of outsiders without the distraction of loyalty to the organization to courageously expose the wrongdoing. Penn State's beloved Joe Paterno, not only lost his job but his life-long reputation because of the uncontrolled actions of Jerry Sandusky, who had been his assistant. Did JoePa not take what was deemed to be the appropriate steps in the face of sexual abuse because he wanted to protect the reputation of the college over the well-being of the children?  Or do these two examples connect and did he take his cue from the church to which he was also dedicated, attending daily mass? More recently, there is Ken Starr, President and Chancellor at Baylor University. He was removed from the Presidency and resigned from the Chancellorship following an investigation into the mishandling of sexual assault charges at the school. Was the "mishandling" of a sexual assault an oversight, poor chain of command communication, or a misguided loyalty to the institution? 

In these three cases, men in positions of power were not able to cross the loyalty line and clarify a value more important than loyalty. Perhaps it is integrity, or the one to do with respect for all, or with humanity above title and power of any kind. Whatever it is called, it comes from active conscience and it sometimes makes one walk over hot coals on a lonely path.  The loyalty to the organization cannot take precedence over loyalty to a higher principle. 

The lessons are that this business of doing the right thing when two rights are present is a clear example of how and why leaders must be able to access their highest values, their deeply seated values. Courageous conversations are essential. Whether confronting a single person, a group, being present and true to self  is the route to solution. Poet David Whyte, an organizational consultant, lights the way into the kind of visibility that withstands such pressures.

One of the powerful dynamics of leadership is being visible. One of the vulnerabilities of being visible is that when you are visible you can be seen you can be touched and when you can be touched you can be hurt. So all of us have these elaborate ways of looking as if we are showing up and not showing up. Except in an organizational setting it has tremendous consequences on other peoples' lives. We've all worked in organizations where someone is sitting there at a crossroads or a nexus in the organization; they're there but they're not there. Because of that they are blocking everything that is trying to come through their particular portal.  So one of the dynamics you have to get over with is this idea that you can occupy a position of responsibility, that you can have a courageous conversation without being vulnerable (David Whyte On Being April 7, 2016).

Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or by Email.

Johnson, C.E. (2015). Meething the Ethical Challenges of Leadership: Casting Light or Shadow. Los Angeles: Sage Publications

Illustration by fuzzbones courtesy of 123rf

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