Defining Leadership in a Time of Chaos

Market Insight
Mac Bogert

“True Leadership only exists if people follow when they have the freedom not to.”

--Jim Collins


What does leadership look like?

When I was doing leadership work with DLA (Defense Logistics Agency), my audience was mostly male, mostly retired military, and very, very blunt. Never in my years working with them did I have to ask myself, “I wonder what they’re thinking?”

As we wrestled with different perspectives about leadership—I did not serve, so my thinking came from a different framework—we talked about our heroes, especially in war movies. I shared two film clips with them, one of John Wayne as Sergeant John Stryker in The Sands of Iwo Jima, the other of Tom Hanks as Captain John Miller in Saving Private Ryan.

John Wayne’s character is feared, brutal, admired. His Sergeant Stryker is estranged from all his personal relationships and drinks alcoholically. Tom Hanks’s Captain Miller is loved, transparent, admired. His family is the center of his life. Their characters couldn’t be more different, yet they each led effectively. The class helped me untangle leadership: it’s not one thing, it’s about connecting as best we can, however we can, through our own lens to give other people a path forward. The class even gave me a taxonomy for leadership, after they asked me to leave them alone for a couple of hours while they hashed it out and boiled it down:

Vision. Courage. Influence.

“We need a positive vision of the future,” they told me, “not complaining about the present or rehashing the past. We may not need the courage to run into a burning building to save a child, but at least the courage to be open, even when we won’t be popular. And if we can’t change people’s hearts and minds, we’re wasting time.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself.


Management and Leadership

As parents, troop leaders, teachers, administrators, neighbors, we shuttle between management and leadership all the time. Getting other people organized is management. Giving them a path to see the value of the way forward is leadership. Marking wrong answers on a test is management. Marking the correct answers is leadership.

I’m making these distinctions overly black-and-white for analysis; they are much more blended in action. From a learning perspective, when we manage learning, we provide structure, a platform and a protocol to maintain stability, like the poles for a tent. Especially in the virtual classroom, we adopt LMS’s (Learning Management Systems). These “hold up the tent”, but they are not the tent. The tent is learning and that’s where the limits of management need attention. How we exercise control in the classroom, especially now with the explosion of virtuality, too often carries over from the assembly-line approach: When we seek to control what others learn, we tell them that we don’t trust them and we diminish their sense of efficacy.

In this crash of assumptions brought about by a virus colliding with technology, we must assume less external control and more re-alignment of each person’s efficacy: Management is about control of others. Leadership is about control of self.


McGregor, TESA, Drive

X and Y were the two endpoints for Douglas McGregor’s management model in the ‘60s. He noticed that managers fell into two basic views about their charges. X managers see their employees as working for them, that people needed to be pushed to performance:

”You have to watch people carefully or they’ll goof off,”

“Because I said so.”

Y managers see themselves as working for their employees—their role is creating a context for excellence, a place to explore and push possibility:

“Can you tell me more?”

“How can I help you implement this?”

Here’s the best part: All other things being equal (length of service, generation, education, skills and so on), both groups got the very behaviors from their people that their assumptions and behavior created. We can’t command people to learn without negating the very qualities we’re hoping to develop.

I worked for a time with TESA: Teacher Expectations and Student Achievement. My job was to help elementary school teachers accept their assumptions about performance and set them aside. These assumptions operated at a very subtle level—usually unconscious—and covered identifiers like gender, race, speech patterns, seating (front or back of class) and appearance. The data have led to some controversy, as data do, but my experience, via the feedback from the teachers involved, was that they were surprised how much better their ‘low performers’ did, including more participation, leadership behaviors, social interaction as well as improving grades, once the teachers faced, and began removing, these assumptions.

Drive is Daniel Pink’s opus to motivation. Based on lots of research, empirical studies as well as qualitative data, he develops a powerful argument that humans (including children, btw) are driven by three intrinsic needs:

  1. To direct our own lives
  2. To learn and create new things
  3. To do better by ourselves and our world

The world of virtual learning provides the perfect platform to let these energies collide and prosper. For the traditional, factory, school-as-assembly line mindset, these are anathema. In our current upending of society due to the pandemic, the motives for intrinsically driven learning (curiosity, engagement, and accountability) match the possibilities for web-based interaction. And we can make space in our thinking and practice for these to take root.

Teacher-as-boss doesn’t work here. Teacher-as-leader does. As Ben Zander suggests, “The conductor of an orchestra doesn’t make a sound. He’s the only musician who doesn’t make a sound. He depends for his power—and his power is very great—on his ability to make other people powerful.”



Motivational sneakers

This fantastic (as in the Greek root which translates as to make real) collision of pandemic, technology, and flagging public education provides . . . crisis? Fear? Anxiety? Discomfort? Indeed, and each of these is also a symptom of possibility.

I was working with a room full of scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology some years back. We were having a terrific mélange of perspectives about change, stability, and safety. One of the folks in the room came up to me as I was packing up and he asked me a question.

“You mentioned Metamorphosis, the short story, right?”

“Yeah. It was very cool how we all ran with that.”

“Something you may not know—most people don’t, is that the caterpillar doesn’t change in little bits in the cocoon, you know, like its little legs get longer and its eyes and mouth change, and it grows wings, okay? It basically dissolves into this kind of organic paste and then starts from scratch. We only discovered this recently, but I thought you’d be interested.”

“Oh, yeah!”

What if we framed this collision as that kind of possibility, that we could be free of so many assumptions and biases about learning and build from “paste” instead of just tweaking around the edges, the metaphoric legs and wings, as it were? Then we could involve everyone by opening up the door of discovery and assembly of a new model so we all could be free to put on our motivational sneakers and build together.

I try to ask myself every day, “What am I thinking that prevents me from pushing forward, not pushing back?”

Here’s a link to a new podcast about creating opportunities as we harness chaos:



About the author

Mac Bogert is President of AZA Learning. He began his career as an English teacher. For the past 25 years, Mac has focused on the intersection of leadership and learning. In between, He is a Musician, professional actor, yacht charter captain, staff development consultant, curriculum designer and author of Learning Chaos.

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