Byron's Babbles

“What Might Have Beens” Are Risky

Posted in Educational Leadership, Global Leadership, History, Leadership, Leadership Development, Robert M. Gates by Dr. Byron L. Ernest on September 28, 2020

A comment made by Robert Gates in his great book Exercise of Power: American Failures, and a New Path Forward in the Post-Cold War World really made me think. He said, “Addressing ‘what might have beens’ in history is risky.” I wrote it in my notes so I could think about it and blog about it. I believe we need to study history in a way that doesn’t force us into being judgmental outside of the context the history was made in.

Everyone needs to study history. The past is filled with warning signs. We must be able to reflect on the events that built up to them, learn from mistakes made and resist and question if we see similar patterns emerging. By studying history we can identify when society is going down perilous and contribute toward getting back on the right track. This should not include continuing to place blame on individuals who are, in many cases, not even alive any more. We need to think of how to learn from the past not think in terms of “what might have been.”

Additionally, history cannot be studied by learning isolated events without understanding the events, personalities, and events that molded the personalities involved leading up to historical events. One point I believe Gates was making was that there had been no perfect leader, and never will be. Therefore, we need to study the positives and negatives, uplifting and inspiring, and chaotic and immoral. There are lessons, both good and bad, to be learned from the way our ancestors have interacted with other people who have different ways of living. Understanding how our leaders, communities, and past societies have acted, reacted, and integrated is key to humanity improving in the future.

Leaders Crashing & Flying Higher

IMG_9434So what traits do great leaders have? That’s such a loaded question – different great leaders demonstrate different traits. If you ask a group of teacher leaders to select the top traits they think are important in a leader, you’ll find as many answers as you have teacher leaders. No one has ever been able to come up with a definitive list of leadership traits that everyone – or even a majority of people contemplating leadership – agrees on. This doesn’t stop me from trying however. During our August 3D Leadership gatherings I always do a discussion/activity called “Good Leader/Bad Leader: Crashing & Flying Higher.” This involves an activity where participants fly paper airplanes to each other with good leadership traits on the left wing and bad leadership traits on the right wing. They then keep adding to the lists as we fly the planes. This is really fun virtually on Zoom. Yes, you can fly paper airplanes virtually! Ultimately, their task is to develop a top five good leadership trait list and a top five bad leadership trait list,

Screen Shot 2020-09-01 at 9.29.10 AMThe exercise enables a great discussion and thought provoking debate. What we find is that each person’s list of good and bad traits is heavily dependent on her or his experience with different leaders. I get to do this activity 9 or 10 groups per year and every group’s lists are always at least a little different, but many times are very different. Things like who is leading the school, turnover of leaders, style of leadership of leaders, culture of the school, et cetera. This activity somewhat reinforces the idea that the trait theory of leadership is not the end all be all. “The trait theory of leadership focuses on identifying different personality traits and characteristics that are linked to successful leadership across a variety of situations. This line of research emerged as one of the earliest types of investigations into the nature of effective leadership and is tied to the “great man” theory of leadership first proposed by Thomas Carlyle in the mid-1800s. The idea with trait theory is that if you can identify the personality traits or characteristics a great leader has, you can look for those same traits in other leaders, or even develop those traits in people who want to be leaders.

Screen Shot 2020-09-01 at 9.29.48 AMThe differences that I see when doing the “Good Leader/Bad Leader: Crashing & Flying Higher” activity suggest that this may due to situational variables in which different leadership skills emerge when opportunities for leadership arise. These situations might include turnaround work, poor leaders in place, war, a political crisis, or in the absence of leadership. As a believer that everyone in an organization is leader, I believe that there must be adaptive leadership for many situations.

Screen Shot 2020-09-01 at 7.20.28 PMI just finished reading Robert Gates’ great new book, Exercise of Power: American Failures, Successes, and a New Path Forward in the Post-Cold War World. Having served for eight Presidents of the United States, he certainly saw different leadership styles and traits. He explained that most want to put Presidents into ascribing to idealism, realism, or transactional. As he stated, great leaders must be all three. He gives examples of Presidents being all three. In other words, to be effective, leaders must be able to adapt. When I reflect on the top five “good leader” traits that our 3D Leadership group from Tennessee came up with this past Saturday, I believe they are traits that would serve all leaders well. Here is there top five list:

  1. Listening to understand
  2. Authentic
  3. Being consistent
  4. Straight forward
  5. Relationship builder

Here of the top five “bad leader” traits causing leaders to crash, from our Tennessee teacher leaders if you are interested:

  1. Insecure
  2. Belittling
  3. Negative
  4. Leads by intimidation
  5. Doesn’t walk the talk