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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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