Leading by not Leading

Every time I think I’ve got it figured out, the universe immediately puts me back in my place. This month’s lesson in humility?  There is a time to not lead.

Recently I decided that our faculty needed more time together to informally talk about teaching and learning practices and to share ideas and support each other. So rather than asking for permission, I just organized a one hour meeting where we could share our ideas.  I banned PowerPoint, but otherwise, I left it up to the people who attended to decide what to talk about and how to share it. We had great turn out, total engagement, and enthusiasm. At the end of the hour, one person was disappointed we were winding up, as we were just getting started.

So what is the lesson from this experience?  Leaders don’t always need to completely control a situation. I didn’t need to lead, just to facilitate. My job was to identify the need of the teaching community at my institution, and to create a way for the community to support itself, and then get out of the way and let the members of the community help each other. By sharing leadership and releasing control, our whole community was made better.

The more that I study the concept of Servant leadership, the more that I begin to believe that it is a powerful model. I recently read Jim Laub’s concept of the servant leader and the servant organization.  Here is a quick summary:

The servant leader:

Values People:

  • By trusting and believing in people
  • By serving other’s needs before his or her own
  • By receptive, non-judgmental listening

Develops People

  • By providing opportunities for learning and growth
  • By modeling appropriate behaviour
  • By building up others through encouragement and affirmation

Builds community

  • By building strong personal relationship
  • By working collaboratively with others
  • By valuing the differences of others

Displays authenticity

  • By being open and accountable to others
  • By a willingness to learn from others
  • By maintaining integrity and trust

Provides leadership

  • By envisioning the future
  • By taking initiative
  • By clarifying goals

Shares leadership

  • By facilitating a shared vision
  • By sharing power and releasing control
  • By sharing status and promoting others

While the servant leader model might not be appropriate in all organizations and in all situations, I’ve come to believe that we under-estimate the capacity of people to lead themselves. While I still have quibbles with some aspects of Servant leadership, I’m beginning to think that there is more to this philosophy than I first thought.  My new objective is to learn to feel more comfortable with the idea of releasing control. I’ll let you know how I’m doing.


Laub, J. The servant organization in Dierendonck, D. van, & Patterson, K. (Eds.). (2010). Servant leadership (pp. 105 – 117). Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan.

Categories: Ideas, Leadership

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4 replies »

  1. It would sound like the form that leadership style takes is more about removing the ego and adapting to the situation and to those following.

    I believe that all of the different styles have their value in certain situations. What I see happen in many cases is that the ego of a leader turns every situation into the form of a “Nail” therefore that leader’s answer is to become the “Hammer”.

    As you found in the one hour meeting, by not declaring ownership and control (keeping the ego quiet) the form of leadership used in that situation, Servant Leader, and that particular group, worked wonders and accomplished a great deal. Do you think you would try that in your classroom with your students under most situations – perhaps not.

    I applaud you for what you experienced of leadership but mostly for what you learned about you.

  2. Aha! Music to my ears, dear Colleen! Which is why I dislike the term followership/followers in the context of organizational life! True leadership is fluid … sometimes you lead by taking control … sometimes you lead by not leading! I can’t believe you said that! 🙂 Servant leadership is one model; Faciltative leadership is another; there are others. What’s important to me is clarifying how you see your role in leading in the first place. I believe leadership is about creating the conditions that help others succeed and to facilitate that collective success. Your meeting – your convening a conversation that matters – is a prime example. You took the lead in calling the meeting and inviting people to come together to talk about their work and then you facilitated (made easy) that conversation. That is powerful leadership because it activates our best selves collectively! Good stuff!

  3. What is really cool about this is what happened next. In another meeting about online learning, someone suggested that we use the electronic hub I created with one of my conspirators to circulate more info on teaching and learning online. We’re at the beginning of a true peer based teaching community – and there was no need to push, demand or force people. They did it themselves.

    Great to hear from you AM.


  4. That’s great … it’s those experiences of genuinely shared leadership – rooted in passion and the quest for mastery – that have had the profoundest influence on my development as a leader. Thanks for sharing this experience!

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