Lao Tzu Meets Addison DeWitt: Lessons on Leadership
President S. Alan Ray
February 7, 2010
On the occasion of the Elmhurst College Winter Commencement of 2010, I am delighted to extend a warm welcome to our honored guests, our trustees, faculty and administrators. I especially wish to welcome the parents, family and friends of our soon-to-be graduates. Without your support, those who sit around us as candidates for degrees would never have made it to this place. To the Class of 2010, who have worked so long and so hard for this hour, I say simply—congratulations! I am proud to know many of you, and extremely proud of all of you on your achievement today. Graduating students, I ask, now, that you recognize by your applause the many people here who have sacrificed so that you can reach for that degree and step out as alumni and alumnae of Elmhurst College.
The economy into which you our graduates are entering no doubt causes you to focus on getting a job. Granted, becoming employed is important. But there is a danger that preoccupied with landing a position, you’ll neglect the potential of the job to provide you with a career. I want to speak for a few minutes about one aspect of your immediate future that I encourage you to bear in mind, as you search for a job or once you have that job in hand. That aspect is the place of leadership in work.
Are you a leader? How do you know you are? Any followers lately—and Twitter doesn’t count? Why should you care if you’re a leader, why not let someone else, with more charisma, or a bigger ego, become the leader?
Leadership is not about personal charisma. That’s a myth. Leadership is not about making other people do what you say—another myth. Charming and bullying an office of co-workers is not leadership. Leadership is inherently social, not a magic quality to inspire or coerce, that some people possess and others do not.
Leadership is about moving people in the direction of success—their success and yours. Leadership is as complex as the psyches of those in an organization, as strategic as the political allocation of scarce social goods, as obvious as organizational structures, and as impressive as the roles and symbols of corporate authority. Let me explain. Theorists of leadership Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal in their classic work, Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice and Leadership, argue that leadership can be exercised within four general frames or modes, and most of us work comfortably within one or possibly two of these frames of leadership. Those four frames are the following. The structural frame sees an organization as an org chart with people reporting up and down to each other, and side to side. Leadership comes from getting together with chart peers, deciding what to do, and then exercising power over the people below you. Second is the frame of human resources. If you think of your work place as a great big family, where people act out of loyalty and mutual respect, then you’re most at home in the HR frame. The HR frame puts a high priority on folks getting along, on disputes being settled by consensus, and with relatively little express hierarchy. Perhaps you think of your organization as a big game of chess, or better, of War. Then you’re inclined to see your workplace in the political frame. Leaders acting from the political frame see everyone else, and themselves, as self-interested operators, trying to maximize their own need-satisfaction against others doing the same, vying for a limited pool of resources. It’s a zero-sum environment for the political frame. And last, there is the symbolic frame. Leaders at home in this frame create and take advantage of big company moments to dramatize their authority, and move people emotionally toward their view of success. Think of the pope. Or a president on stage in regalia. Or a professor in class wearing a coat and tie or a power suit. Symbolic leaders often publically hark back to an institution’s glorious past, or paint an exciting vision of its future, to get folks on board. The calculated use of institutional symbols and memory are the hallmarks of the symbolic frame.
The Bolman and Deal frame analysis has had a large impact on leadership theory. Do you see yourself working most naturally in the structural frame, off an org chart? Or as a part of a big family where everyone matters, as in the HR frame? Or as a wizard of symbols, exciting the crowds toward a great destiny? Or as chess grandmaster, taking no prisoners as you see further and deeper than your opponents, winning opportunities for your organization, in the political frame?
In fact, as Bolman and Deal tell us, the successful leader knows how to combine all four. That’s where the artistry comes in. Know thyself—know which frame or frames gives you the most comfort in working in an organization, then start to stretch into new frames. Believe me—you will need all of them, because, in truth, there is no one right frame. Sometimes your success will hinge on the management equivalent of the group hug, but other times, you have to see a threat and neutralize it. You have to stay within the lines, and sometimes jump outside them to rally the troops. My point is that it takes courage to move outside your comfort frames, and wisdom to know when to make the move. And over time, with experience, you become adroit at seeing which frame is most helpful to your organization’s success, and being able to take the plunge to execute as a leader within it.
Twenty-five hundred years ago, the Chinese sage and philosopher, Lao Tzu, wrote about leadership in his book, the Tao Te Ching. He said that the best leader is invisible, not at the head of the parade, nor at the tail of it:
With the greatest leader above then, people barely know one exists.
Next comes one whom they love and praise.
Next comes one whom they fear.
Next comes one whom they despise and defy.
When a leader trusts no one, no one trusts him.
The great leader speaks little.
He never speaks carelessly.
He works without self-interest and leaves no trace.
When all is finished, the people say, “We did it ourselves.”
There is much insight in Lao Tzu’s statement. From my experience, part of what this means is that you should always be ready to see what needs to be done in an organization that no one else is willing to do, or thought of doing, then do it. Early in my career in administration, in my first role as a director of academic affairs, I worked for an under-administered school, one that really had a lot that needed doing. I became fairly indispensible by reliably, cheerfully, and effectively picking up the slack. In fact I looked for slack. One person’s slack is another’s opportunity. When people turned to me, it wasn’t because I was especially charismatic (I wasn’t), or had line authority over anyone (I didn’t). It was because they could count on me to get the work done with minimum drama—and, remember this: office drama is always ego centered and always resented. The work was done, the people who handed me the work were pleased, and over time, I was able to suggest different ways of operating, new tasks, new goals, and new workers to achieve them, according to—surprise—my developing vision of the good of the school’s academic affairs. If you are genuinely attuned to what your organization needs, testing your sense of the good against that of others, avoiding drama, understanding setbacks and making changes as you go, and willing to take personal risks and invest considerable time and energy, you will have success and so will your institution. And, “When all was finished, the people said, we did it ourselves.”
After a surprisingly short time, I had become a leader. Not “the” leader in an express way, not the apex on the structural frame’s org chart, but the go-to person for much more than was on my original job description, which eventually changed, to include the things I actually was doing, and liked doing. And for which I was paid more, and called something in my title that showed advancement. You get the picture. And I could only achieve this because I knew my leadership strengths as a person and knew that there were other strengths, other frames of leadership that I needed to work on, to experience, and to grow into, and so added them to my professional resources.
Here is what you should remember: when you have that first job, don’t think that leadership is something that your boss has and you do not. If you do think that way, you deny and alienate your own capacity to create social relations with co-workers in a way that allows you to drive your organization toward success. Start thinking about your leadership potential now, think about it before any interview, and consider it carefully once you land a job and begin interacting with others. If you are heading on to graduate studies, the same advice applies: you still will be negotiating a new professional environment, with its structures and politics, interpersonal relations and symbols. Graduate school is a notorious minefield, as much if not more about socialization into a profession than about cognitive growth into a discipline—or rather, every discipline is always already professionalized, and you would do well to know the difference between an academic discipline and its professional form—its unspoken codes of behavior and appearance. There is a big difference between being a specialist in literary theory and being a tenured professor of English, and that difference is, I would argue, that the latter has exercised leadership.
I would like to be so bold, however, to suggest that Lao Tzu missed one dimension of leadership. He was speaking to China’s ruler, not to someone starting out, brand new, in their first professional job or graduate school. A ruler like Lao Tzu’s has no need to be praised for every little thing that he or she does successfully; in fact, showing the need for such praise diminishes a leader and tends to generate resentment from those whom they lead. A newbie on the job, however, needs notice for his or her success to be, well, successful.
Toward the end of one of my favorite movies, All About Eve, a powerful if cynical New York theater critic, named Addison DeWitt, tells the heroine, Eve Harrington, a brash newcomer to the Broadway stage, that modesty is, basically, for dopes and losers. DeWitt chides Eve for feigning humility, saying, “We all come into this world with our little egos equipped with individual horns. If we don't blow them, who else will?” He has a point. Putting Addison’s advice together with my earlier comments, I would urge you, who are starting out, to identify and take up the work that your organization needs, without fanfare or asking for extravagant signs of power or prestige. But when you succeed in your work, as you will, make sure that you get the credit for it, that you do not succumb to a false humility, but rather let your light shine. If you know the movie I quoted, and you should, you’ll recall that Eve Harrington was incredibly self-promoting but also incredibly talented. Don’t leave your lamp under a bushel—it will only go out or burn the place down. Perhaps Lao Tzu would appreciate the point, after all. In another place, he wrote, “Be the chief but never the lord.” In other words, be known as a leader, just not as a tyrant (or a jerk).
Let me be clear: self-promotion for its own sake is self-defeating. But self-effacement, avoiding due recognition for your achievements, is likewise self-defeating. And to the point: neither self-promotion nor self-effacement is conducive to strong leadership, or in fact, to any leadership.
In conclusion, it is not too early for you to start thinking about leadership, and how you can begin to exercise leadership in your next work environment or in graduate school. I’ve come to think that leadership is such a core aspect of institutional engagement that having a career, and an enjoyable and successful professional life, requires you to keep moving forward in developing your leadership skills, or resign yourself to being part of somebody else’s career, somebody else’s enjoyable and successful professional life. That is one reason I am always encouraging my senior administrative team to engage with their professional organizations. My mantra is “join, attend, present, and lead”: join your organizations, attend regional and national conferences, present original ideas to colleagues through workshops, panels, and journals, and contribute to the leadership of the organizations themselves. Likewise, it is vitally important to me that our faculty experience new professional challenges, develop new courses, take risks in their curriculum and pedagogy, travel broadly, start down new research paths, co-teach across disciplines or in new fields or with new colleagues such as staff or students, and join, attend, present and lead in their professional organizations.
I encourage all of you, our graduating seniors, to join, attend, present and lead in your own ways, as you engage with your chosen professions. Do not get lost in the work cubicle or the study carrel. You’re already moving forward, though in these challenging economic times you may not realize it. Keep going. Keep developing. Learn your leadership frames and start to expand them. Take up the needed work that others disdain and do it conspicuously well. Risk becoming a leader. Because we need you to become leaders. Your success as alumni and alumnae guarantees that the leadership of our administrators and our faculty will not be in vain. Together, you, they, and I will advance the mission, the vision, and the core values of Elmhurst College for another generation. And when we are done, all the people will blow their little horns and say, “we did it ourselves.” Thank you, Class of 2010, congratulations, and receive my sincere best wishes for a lifetime of exciting leadership.