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Leadership is like food.

1. We need it.

2. It’s perishable.

3. Healthy is the future.

“Someone has to take responsibility for being a leader.” –Toni Morrison

That’s a great nugget. Not a wasted word, and it rings the bell, slaps the face, strips the bed, what have you. If we lived in a utopia, we’d be all set — but we don’t. The world needs leadership because it has problems, and we need people who want to solve them. Most people aspire to be considered a leader, but how many achieve that status?

Evan Sinar of the Global Leadership Forecast suggested, “We’ve seen a continued slippage in leadership bench strength (ready-now leaders who can step in to replace those who retire or move on) — in 2018, only 14% of companies have a strong bench, the lowest number we’ve ever seen” (Caprino, 2018). All great teams need a deep bench, one with people itching to play the game, and not from their phones.

I mention phones here because teens who spend more time on social media are more likely to “value individualistic attitudes and less likely to value community involvement.” So, even though they are supportive of equality, they are also “less civically engaged and feel more entitled to things even if they don’t work for them” (Twenge, 2017, pg. 176). The Twitter bird feed doesn’t have enough nutritional value.

Leadership will always be in high demand. Sticking to the food analogy, if you want to play the long game, you can’t sit on one good harvest. You need to be a farmer.

Leadership expires. Heminia Ibarra discusses the “Authenticity Paradox,” where sticking to our authentic selves can actually hold us back. She argues that leaders should experiment with different styles that may feel inauthentic so they can grow:

Most of us have personal narratives about defining moments that taught us important lessons. Consciously or not, we allow our stories, and the images of ourselves that they paint, to guide us in new situations. But the stories can become outdated as we grow, so sometimes it’s necessary to alter them dramatically or even to throw them out and start from scratch. (2015)

I know this is true for me. If I were still leading like I did as a soccer captain — be scary, swear a lot, destroy — I’d be a horrible educational leader (something like Miss Trunchbull from Matilda). While I love soccer, I had to leave much of that narrative behind to move on to bigger and better things, not to mention being a better person.

Being bound by outdated stories limits personal growth, but it is also harmful to others. If you think that leaders are white, straight men, or that assertive women are too bossy, or that people with disabilities are sorry sub-humans, then your stories are hurting others. Also, you may have stockpiled your high school street cred, but at some point you have to start chopping off the bottom rows of your résumé. Sorry, but no one cares that you were on student council anymore.

The leaders of today will not be the leaders of tomorrow — unless they are willing to be the leaders of today and tomorrow. Take the 2020 US presidential election for example. Though it’s unclear what this one tells us more about — what people want or what they don’t want — it’s clear that a whole lot of people were looking for a different tune in 2021.

Note to leaders: if you are unwilling to change yourself, you cannot expect others to change for you (i.e. your runway as a leader will have its limits). What you can expect is the world to change, for you to understand it less, and for you to be less relevant to it.

Healthy food is in, and so is social justice. They are both about getting the bad stuff out and growing the good. Moral leadership is the future, and the most successful and attractive leaders will engage in social justice. In a 2016 survey, 75% of workers and 46% of CFOs identified integrity as a top attribute of corporate leaders (Robert Half Management Resources). As the world becomes more aware of its systemic injustices, the definition for integrity is getting sharper. That will without a doubt influence the criteria of good leadership.

Character matters. Sure, people can bully their way to the top, but that leaves two possible outcomes: you die alone on the top of Mount Everest, or no one climbs a mountain with you ever again. Dramatic? Yes. Sorry? No. Bullies are toxic, and they are going out of style. It’s the same for racism, sexism, heterosexism, transphobia, ableism, and all the rest. If your leadership is anchored in discriminatory isms, your leadership is decaying.

Like good food, moral leadership costs more. It requires us to care more, invest more, and do more. But it’s better. It’s better for you, the world, and the future. It’s not junk. People realize that, and they are hungry for it. Advertise it. Subsidize it. Make is accessible to all. Next-level leaders don’t just give the people what they want. They fuel them.

References

Caprino, K. (2018). The changing face of leadership: 10 new research findings all leaders need to understand. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/kathycaprino/2018/02/28/the-changing-face-of-leadership-10-new-research-findings-all-leaders-need-to-understand/?sh=5ecaa64e6197

Ibarra, H. (2015). The authenticity paradox. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2015/01/the-authenticity-paradox

Robert Half Management Resources. (2016). What is the most important leadership attribute? Retrieved from http://rh-us.mediaroom.com/2016-09-22-What-Is-The-Most-Important-Leadership-Attribute

Twenge, J. M. (2017). Why today’s super-connected kids are growing up less rebellious, more tolerant, less happy — and completely unprepared for adulthood and what that means for the rest of us. New York, NY: Atria Books.

Nick is a school/camp administrator, teacher, coach, and the founder of GoodMenders LLC: building better culture for educational equity.

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