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When A Leader Isn’t Needed

“A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.” — Rosalynn Carter

There are dozens of perspectives on leadership but all of those perspectives have at least one idea in common. As Carter suggested, to be an effective leader, one needs to have a vision for the future and a clear sense of mission or purpose. The leader then “leads” from here to there. A successful leader, then, is one that arrives at the predefined destination, with the followers right behind. One hears a lot about national leaders, state leaders, community leaders, and even family leadership as a necessary quality of a successful parent but one might wonder.

If a business or nonprofit organization fails, it’s usually seen as a failure of leadership. Those in charge fire the Executive and get a new leader, hoping for better times. If that doesn’t work, the organization eventually folds and everyone moves on to other ventures. With the national, state, and local governments and to some extent with families, that doesn’t happen. Rather, things get worse and may get better and then they get worse again but not much changes. Government and families are not much different than they were ten years ago or twenty years ago or fifty years ago. The same is true for the schools, public services, and most all of the institutions and sub-institutions in every jurisdiction. There are better times and worse times but there is a persisting sameness that characterizes things over time.

When the state of permanent institutions is experiencing the good times, the success is attributed to good leadership. During the worse times, the explanation is in terms of economic conditions, social turmoil, international conflict, or other factors that normal people can barely understand and can’t affect in any significant way. It definitely has little to nothing to do with leadership, or so they say.

Perhaps the underlying point is that the concept of leadership doesn’t and shouldn’t apply to government, families, and permanent institutions or at least institutions that are supposed to be permanent. The political folks, institutional employees, parents, and others taking care of business in those environments are supposed to do little more or less than what they can to prevent the worse times and to do whatever they can to maximize the good times. If everyone is on one of those institutional trains or another, they may not need or want a leader. The train can only go where the track is headed. That isn’t a specific destination. Instead, it is more like an adventure into unknown territory.

What should one expect from those in charge of running the train? They should keep it moving. They should keep it on the track. They should avoid running into obstacles that appear on the track from time to time. They shouldn’t lose any train cars as they go along. That’s about it, except for what may be the most important requirement. They should make very sure no one falls off the train. Maybe the real need is for fewer leaders and more conductors who take responsibility for the passengers, who make sure everyone stays on the train, and who assures that everyone has a quality ride.

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