A Rambling Post: Self-Leadership

The world has gone crazy. Or at least our expectations of the world. We are now officially teaching the idea that others fail us, we don’t fail ourselves. Yes, you read that correctly. In a recent conversation with a grade seven and eight teacher, I learned that the position of our local school board is that students don’t fail, teachers fail.

Yet again, our society is sending the message that it isn’t your fault if you fail, it is the fault of someone else. This conveniently ignores the fact that learning is a complex process.  Teaching is only one part of learning. Students bring their innate intelligence, their implicit beliefs about intelligence (see Carol Dweck et. al.), their intrinsic motivation, their cultural beliefs, their family context, their personal effort, persistence, resilience and a whole pile of other traits, behaviours and beliefs to the classroom.  As a teacher, I can influence very little with respect to a student. I cannot control their innate ability, their motivation, whether or not they complete homework. I can’t control whether they listen to instruction, whether they incorporate feedback into their work. All I can do is teach using methods that have been shown to be more effective to generate learning, and to coach and support students to encourage their learning.  While teachers have some accountability for the success or failure of a student, students (and their parents) still have to be responsible for their own learning. If not, we teach them that they are not accountable for their own behaviours and beliefs, and that their personal work outcomes are not their own responsibility. Not a great message for future success.

As leaders, either in a one on one relationship, or within a larger group or organization, we need to move past the cultural norm that leaders are going to solve all of our problems. The fact is that we get the leaders we want. We elect the politicians who tell us what we want to hear. Leaders have very little actual impact on outcomes. According to a classic 1985 study by James Meindl, while people attribute about 50% of the outcome of big successes or failures to the leader, in fact only about 15% of the outcome could be attributed to the actions and decisions taken by the leader. Leaders cannot magically solve our problems by waving a wand. Followers, (that’s most of us), must still do the work. Barrack Obama cannot magically improve the economy if companies do not create jobs and people do not save money, or look for jobs, or focus on productivity.

While I don’t believe that we should go back to the 1960s version of education, which we know wasn’t particularly effective for many people, I’m also not sure that we should be blaming others for the failures of ourselves (or especially our children). Perhaps we need to think more about the idea of self-leadership. Until we can take responsibility for our own behaviours, how can we expect to lead others?


5 replies »

  1. I agree – very worrisome, indeed. Your post reminded me of something I was told years ago by a woman training a group of us as facilitators. She said, no matter what happens, as facilitator, you’re only ever one-third responsible for the outcome. Funnily enough, I can’t quite remember why 1/3 – it matters not. The point is, even the most brilliant facilitator or leader can’t fix all of the problems that belong to a group! And isn’t that the answer … Most of the problems in the world exist between two or more parties. If we can learn to own our problems together – student and teacher (as well as parents for younger students) – and that means sharing responsiblity for solving the problems, we have a decent chance of actually solving them!

  2. Thanks for the shared comments. Of course we all have some accountability and responsibility for outcomes as a leader, teacher, facilitator, but the bottom line is that accountability is shared. Thanks David and Anne Marie for your thoughts. It’s nice to know I’m not alone in this.

  3. No matter what side of the issue, I generally hate any argument that places all the blame on a single cause. Life is complicated. We all interact and effect each other in a giant fluid, and bad people actually can present extraordinary obstacles to good people (who otherwise would have succeeded if the bad people hadn’t screwed things up for them). In education there are at least 3 factors: the kids, the parents (who raise the kids), and the teachers (who are supposed to inspire the kids and make learning seem worthwhile).

    If the kids are smart, then the parents and teachers don’t have to work as hard, and you can let the kids’ personal responsibility do most of the work.

    If the kids are … less than smart or unmotivated, remember that the kids never asked to be put on this planet, so it is some adult’s responsibility to teach them so that we don’t end up with a world full of ignorant people.

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