Leadership Paradox

I recently began formally mentoring someone, and so I have been thinking about the nature of leadership. There’s a bind that “leaders” face. It has to do with the expectations of those who are led, and of the person who is trying to be a helpful leader.

Consider the teacher of yoga class. They “lead” the class.

On the one hand, as a member of the class, I want someone to inspire me and instruct me, to push me to do “better” and to “improve.”

But on the other hand, in reality the effort I make is personal. My yoga teacher does not actually make me perform “better,” but instead sets me up to unlock the capabilities I already have. True, she or he may invite me to try to work beyond my limitations. And true, I may practice with others, and the feeling of being in community may lift me. But it is always me, on my mat, alone, making the effort.

The abilities I have are all already locked within me.

And so here is the leadership paradox: If I am a leader, I have knowledge to pass on and I know that I might be able to spur others to self-surpass. But would it not be a shame if what others take away from me was that I “made them do well?” For then, what they learned was that they need someone else in order to perform.

As a leader, I want to awaken people to what they already have the capacity to do. I want to cultivate the sense that a leader is unnecessary — if not now, then soon.

As a student, what I may then learn is that self-surpassing is always fundamentally available to me, solely through my own efforts.

Published by

Brad Rourke

Executive editor of issue guides and program officer at the Kettering Foundation.

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