The Human Leader: A Faculty Chair Diary

In my home office, I am surrounded by tokens and talismans–a glass bird my mother kept in her kitchen, pottery given to me by a now deceased colleague, a portrait of my great-grandmother, Molly, and a mysterious book that belonged to her. Published in 1890, The Secrets of Life Unveiled, contains methods for divining the future, understanding others, and influencing them through palm reading, dream interpretation, and well-timed, carefully arranged words. How effective she found the contents I don’t know, but when leadership challenges arise, that battered red cover catches my eye and I find myself longing for magical instructions that will reveal what I should do next.

The declarative, contemporary leadership books on my shelf likewise beckon: The Promises of GiantsTrue North, Good to Great, Start with Why, Radical Candor. According to these books, there are all kinds of leaders: transformative, servant, inclusive, strategic, purpose-driven, focused, and most recently compassionate (Forgive me if I’ve left out your favorite label). Other book titles in this genre tell me I should “Dare to Lead” or “Eat Last,” be an “Influencer” or an “Outlier.” A piece I read recently listed 33 things a leader should do during “phase 1” to create inclusion on their team. I dutifully read and reflected, assigning a check next to those I thought I had covered or an X if I knew I needed improvement. By item 12, I was discouraged; no one could do all of these things. At number 20, I skipped to the conclusion, wondering if abandoning the list would be my undoing. 

Perhaps not coincidentally, as I read the list, I was steeping in frustration tea – some people wanted more than I could give while others made inaccurate inferences. In another situation, I was a lone voice that needed to speak but knew I would be doing so without any public backup. I was a leader with labels not found in books: the overwhelmed, tired, bored, sarcastic leader. Or better still, the runaway leader. A leader on the lam. A leader in need of a little magic.  

Could Molly’s book have the answers? Imagine the possibilities. There I’d be, presiding over this meeting or that. When Person X dismissed person Y’s concerns, I could conjure the right words, uttered in the right order, with the right cadence and voila!–productive middle ground is found– but only if the moon is waxing full. Or perhaps when someone asks me to solve a problem that is far out of my remit, I could reply, “let me consult my crystal” (or my coffee grounds or tea leaves if we happened to be meeting at Starbucks.) With a swish of the wand – it’s all in the wrist — problematic actors could be easily turned into, or better still revealed, as the toads they actually are. But alas, with its obscure ingredients and timing-specific directions, The Secrets of Life Revealed promises a cookbook approach to life challenges not much different than the leadership literature. Truthfully, sometimes I think that the bullet points, lists, self-assessments, and strategies amount to little more than modern-day alchemy, a way to turn the average metal of humanity into superhuman gold. With the right formula, I’d be liked, understood, trusted, and respected all at the same time. I’d never make people unhappy, lose my cool, or need to apologize for handling something wrong or dropping a ball. 

At the end of last semester, I’d deviated from the lists. I got testy instead of “using humor appropriately.” I withdrew instead of “expressing gratitude and appreciation.” I did not want to “ask for feedback and help.” I wanted to retreat. As the holidays arrived, the meeting calendar subsided, and the email flood receded, I opened a book ostensibly not related to my work life at all, Wintering by Katherine May.

“Wintering is a season in the cold. It is a fallow period in life when you’re cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of the outsider.” 

Yes. That was me. And then:

“Doing those deeply unfashionable things–slowing down, letting your spare time expand, getting enough sleep, resting–is a radical act now, but it is essential. This is a crossroads we all know, a moment when you need to shed a skin. If you do, you’ll expose all those painful nerve endings and feel so raw that you’ll need to take care of yourself for a while. If you don’t, that skin will harden around you.” 

As I sat by the fireplace, curled up in my father’s favorite red fleece blanket, May gave me an alternative to the lists, the bullet points, and even the magic potions. She normalized the stumbles, the injuries, and the depletion I was experiencing. Instead of the thin language of leadership literature–hard to argue with and easy to swallow–hers was a thick stew that prompted me to savor slowness and reflection and to accept imperfection and struggle in others, in the world at large, but mostly in myself. Perhaps I was not the inherently flawed leader, just another creature in need of hibernation.

Great-grandmother Molly surely had hard winters too in her rural Missouri landscape, days when she was frustrated and at odds with the world. Maybe she thumbed through “The Secrets to Life Unveiled” only to realize she would not find the remedy to every ill within those well-worn pages. Instead, without today’s creature comforts – central heat and a well-stocked pantry — she was probably pushed into wintering and its lessons by the natural world.

In truth, I don’t think I’ve done the full measure of wintering needed right now. I don’t think most of us have. The last two years have taxed us too much and uncertainty still hangs in the air. But I wintered enough to be able to do what I was struggling with at the end of last semester: hold other people’s discontent while noticing but not succumbing to my own, which in my experience is the central task of leadership. The questions I needed to ask were not about a checklist or a magic tonic–they were about a way of being list, an embodiment list. What are the values that I’m living in any given moment? Why am I letting go of this one or that one? And is there a good reason to let go of a particular value at a given time? If good reasons can’t be named or don’t ring true, what needs to change so that I can get back to living what I believe? Perhaps magical leaders can circumvent such questions. For human leaders like me, the incantations from Molly’s tattered tome or the leadership course du jour provide no answers. The magic is in the questions, the reflection, the solitude, the wintering, no matter what season it occurs.

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