(A guest blog post by: Michael Wilkerson, Assistant Professor of Arts Management at American University. As posted on the American’s for the Arts ArtsBlog at http://blog.artsusa.org/2011/02/25/what-is-leadership-an-eals-blog/)

Leadership. As someone who loves to lecture (sorry, students), even my own eyes glaze over at the word. Go to any business section of any bookstore and you can find hundreds of tomes that boil down to one extended metaphor in the form of a book length advice column:  “The fiction writer’s way of leadership,” The housewife’s way of leadership,” “Leadership:  the Mad Men Method,” “How Would Jesus Lead (HWJL)?”

Okay, I made those up, but among this blizzard of works on leadership, what actually helps? We’ll try to find some answers at the symposium. My views are too complex to reduce to sound bites or slick metaphors, probably because I believe leadership is not solely about the leader as much as it is his or her interaction with co-workers, or followers.

We make too many assumptions that the CEO is The Leader. But one can lead from the middle (director of marketing) or even below (program associate). The weird irony of organizations seems to be that those who hold leadership positions are not necessarily any good at leading. Yet spectacular feats of leadership can occur at any level. Followers influence leaders with their ideas and their ways of working, and more importantly, they influence each other.

To me, leadership is about understanding the environment in which you operate, the assets (people and other resources) you have available, and making sure that you are getting the most out of those assets. Which may sound like working folks harder, but it really means inspiring them to bring you their best selves, not filling up all their waking hours. A really good leader can sometimes appear to be doing nothing, because he/she has been so successful at empowering employees, at turning them into leaders.

We spend too much time thinking about leadership and not enough about “followership.” What does it mean to work “for” someone? In my years as assistant to several university vice presidents, we followers debated one core issue:  are we there to make the big boss look good, or to enable him or her to do good? The former takes no courage whatsoever; the latter is all about courage, about speaking truth to power (“no, boss, it would be wrong of you to make that decision”), about listening harder and more carefully to others, about participating so deeply in the life of the organization that you can be confident that you can identify a wrong or right decision when you see it coming.

There’s a book by Ira Chaleff called The Courageous Follower. I’d recommend that everyone slavishly tromp your way to the bookstore and buy a copy.

Emerging Arts Leaders Symposium. It sounds like a conference for butterflies who are about to emerge from their chrysalises, dry off their wings, and magically fly. As Russell Taylor, president of National Arts Strategies, says, “You have already emerged.” It’s not a moment but a process. I see leadership in all kinds of ways from my students, even the ones who would be the first to say, “I’m not ready.” So shorten the learning curve and take your power. Lead from where you are.

In closing, let me tell you a secret:  even old, veteran, longtime leaders feel insecure about this leadership stuff. Even if your organization never changes mission, the environment is never stable. Consequently, what’s required of a leader is constant adaptation and prescience. Therefore, the old guard does not stand in your way, so much as it hungers for your help.

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