Headmaster's Study Leave Fall 2009

Study Leave

Fall 2009

Heading into this week, I wasn’t as excited about this study leave as I have been about some other weeks I’ve taken. I had decided to read a number of books I’ve been piling up on leadership. I would rather have read theology or educational philosophy or Dostoevsky, and I might have come back more inspired if I had. But I think it was wise for me to focus on leadership. A different kind of reading list from my normal stack.

Leadership is such a modern term. Who talked about it before the middle of the last century? Before then, if you wanted to learn about leadership, you read Moby Dick or Lincoln’s biography. I still think those might be the best kinds of thing to read about leadership. But I’d be a snob to think I don’t have a lot to learn from the social psychologists and executive coaches and experienced experts. So I hunkered down, and I was rewarded.

Kavin Rowe had recommended three books. One I had read earlier (On Thinking Institutionally, by Hugh Heclo—a fine read, one that acquits the genre admirably). The second, Charles Taylor’s Modern Social Imaginaries put me to shame—I found it so abstruse I set it down and do hope to return to it. The third I read with more apparent benefit: Ronald Heifetz’s Leadership without Easy Answers—a Harvard MBA-type who tells fascinating stories from the political and medical worlds and then draws general conclusions (his account and analysis of LBJ’s concurrent brilliance with Civil Rights and debacle of Vietnam is worth the price of the book). I also read a book Laura Sanders had given me some time back, Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Temptations of a CEO. This was a great, quick read, though fairly depressing as I realized that I’ve fallen already, numerous times, to all five and probably have a proclivity for three of them. I also dug up Chester Barnard’s The Functions of the Executive. Fred Brooks has been citing this book for years now, and I finally got down to reading it, or most of it. I was surprised that I had to dig through a lot of chaff to get to the nuggets that Fred had been referencing, but they are there for sure. One of the unexpected gems was the epigraph, from Aristotle’s Metaphysics, which I quote in full:

For the efficiency of an army consists partly in the order and partly in the general; but chiefly in the latter, because he does not depend upon the order, but the order depends upon him. All things, both fishes and birds and plants, are ordered together in some way, but not in the same way; and the system is not such that there is no relation between one thing ad another. There is a definite connexion. Everything is ordered together to one end; but the arrangement is like that in a household, where the free persons have the least liberty to act at random, and have all or most of their actions preordained for them, whereas the slaves and animals have little common responsibility and act for the most part at random.

This is so true. The President of the United States can do all kinds of things nobody else can do—he is in some ways the most free citizen in the country. But he can’t just jump up, run out the front door of the White House, go for a jog, stop in a coffee house if he feels like it. He has the “least liberty to act at random.” This is one of the burdens of leadership, and those who aspire to lead should surely count this cost. And those of us who are leaders shouldn’t complain about it. It’s in the nature of things. It’s not anybody’s fault.

The other thing I read, quite short but powerful, was Sam Wells’ (Dean of Duke Chapel) sermon on leadership, from Mark 10:35-45, “But It Shall Not Be So with You.” Anyone interested can read (or hear! Or see on YouTube!) the sermon at http://www.chapel.duke.edu/documents/sermons/2009/091018.pdf. I found Dr. Wells’ four-point typology of leadership quite huiristic, and his take on what it means to be a servant after the heart of the Son of Man is superb.

All this was good for me. Helped me do some soul-searching. Helped me, in Heifetz’s analogy, leave the dance floor and get up to the balcony and look down at the movements to see patterns. Helped me, in Barnard’s terms, to remove myself from the work of the organization and think about the work of maintaining the organization—the unique work of a leader, which no one else can do. It all set me to work on a plan, which I will be sharing with the staff and board. (I thought it might be good, after all this reading about leadership, to do a little leading myself.)

For anyone interested, I also read Lauren Winner’s Real Sex. I’m sure that will get your attention. I had a recent eye-popping conversation with a Duke sophomore about the sexual culture on college campuses and was thinking about how we at Trinity need to prepare our graduates for what they are about to experience. This was part of a larger project, to which I devoted some time, planning for the Theology 12 class I’ll be teaching in the Spring Semester (Apologetics and Worldview).

Finally, just for fun, and because my eldest is planning to hike the Appalachian Trail, I read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. After Aristotle and Charles Taylor, this was a relief. I laughed out loud and read entire pages to my family.


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