It is sobering to wake up to the news. If you don't tend carefully to your mind, you're one thumb click away from the overwhelm of pandemic, flood, and war.
I’m not suggesting we stick our heads in the sand. These are important, real things that we need to talk about and resolve. But as a school leader, and a parent, I can’t afford to slip down that rabbit hole before breakfast.
Faced with difficulty, and threat, I believe leaders need to be people of hope. And you don’t need to do this with fanfare. My favourite leaders appear to operate in stealth mode. In a week that began with a celebration of International Women’s Day, the leadership of New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern comes to mind. Her great quality is her quiet presence. She walks alongside the people she leads. She strives to be clear and helpful. She uses influence and power to bring stability and optimism to her people. She seeks hope, looking for the best in others, leaning on truth, optimising energy, and focusing on a vision that is better for the world.
This is what I like to think of as the light side of leadership. The privilege of using your authority to improve things for others
Using your leadership power for others is a common motivation for school leaders. A kind of servant leadership. Most school leaders began their lives as teachers interested in helping young people be their best. To extend that hope to adults and then a community is a logical leap forward. But that’s not how everyone thinks about leadership.
As a former teacher of human societies, history and politics, I'm aware there are other leadership dispositions – a fact underscored by the current invasion of the Ukraine. Because leadership involves power, prestige, and influence, it is especially susceptible to manipulation, to a dark side, to a need to win, to assert, to crush and to bask in victory.
Most leadership theorists have noted that the same strategies that underscore noble leadership – purpose, vision, charisma, inspiration power and impact – are readily deployed for dishonourable causes. The darkest leaders of our history books often started their leadership life with a much lighter style.
For this reason, dark leaders can be difficult to detect. They are inspiring and influential. They make out their vision is for the benefit of others. They often say they are leading for the glory of their nation, company, or even their family. But you only have to watch what they do, rather than listen to what they say, to catch them out. Dark leaders use their power to fill their own empty psychological cup and then promote their personal interests.
Dark leaders don’t work alone. According to P.G. Northouse in Leadership: Theory and Practice (SAGE Publications, 2018), like blockbuster villains, they enlist the support of conformers and colluders. Conformers are attracted to the dark leader because they lack confidence and see power in identification with the leader. Colluders hang on to the coattails of the dark leader, seeking to leverage their power for their own ends.
Dark leaders prosper in toxic unstable environments marked by weak leadership and a lack of checks and balances. The results of their leadership are unmissable: followers are manipulated, they are worse off than they were prior to the dark leader’s arrival; workplaces become stressed and toxic, according to Northouse.
Why am I talking about dark leadership? One, we are witnessing the rise of dark leadership across the globe in politics and war. It is clarifying to talk about these concepts and promote their opposites: the light, the quiet. And two, we are not immune from the creeping influence of dark leadership in our own lives. We need to keep an eye on our own practice and check we are still using our powers for good.
In a week with too many contrasts, I’d like to highlight the power of quiet, persistent, light leadership in the style of Jacinda Ardern. This contrasts to the dark, the loud, the manipulative and the bombastic style of the warlord that polarises our world, online and off. We need new metaphors to talk about effective leadership.
I'd like to nominate Jacinda Ardern – more choreographer than front person – an example to me and the students I lead.