Leadership Philosophy: December 2020 Edition

This paper was originally written as a reflection on my August 2020 philosophy paper in my Introduction to Organization and Leadership class at USF. I hope to springboard off of this reflection and continue to update my philosophy as move through my graduate program and beyond.

When I first started thinking about leadership and my journey as I began my Introduction to Organizational Leadership class at the University of San Francisco in August 2020, I literally painted two pictures for my first leadership philosophy paper. One picture was of a baked five-tiered cake, and the other of a mixing bowl and several ingredients being poured in. My ingredient labels were things like leadership, imagination, and people. (Tostanoski, pg. 2) In my first edition of my leadership philosophy, I wrote in regards to being a good leader: “To do this well, in my opinion, is much like baking a cake. Where I am at in life with this metaphor is that I don’t know if mixing the batter is the correct metaphor, or identifying the various layers that make up the final product.” (Tostanoski, pg. 2) But as it goes, when you complete any course (hopefully) your perceptions and knowledge on the subject in question, grows, expands and changes. And so while I still love eating cake (never really been a baker), the baking analogy is already outdated for me. What’s missing in my cake analogy is process, getting from point A to B to C and so on (though ironically, had I drawn some arrows and cake my cake batter to the same color tier on my cake, I would have achieved this analogy perhaps without knowing it). And on top of the process, there are too many rules to baking. The new edition of my philosophy on good leadership is similar to being a decent cook. Throughout this reflection paper, I will not just explain why my analogy has changed, but more importantly, I will outline my new leadership philosophy as it has shifted throughout my Introduction to Organization and Leadership class.

When I began digging into leadership studies, writing annotation after writing annotation, I questioned our class’s authors regarding the steps (process) to become a good leader. I’ve always understood that to become a leader requires experience, but what was that experience? What were the steps I needed to plan for? I wanted to know how to be a good leader while these authors were focused on telling me why, when, who, etc. Looking back on our Northouse, Gardner and Kouzes, and Posner readings, our class reflected on how these works were manuals to be leaders, but it still wasn’t doing it for me. When reading Northouse, I asked, “how do leaders who believe/practice the process definition of leadership and gain the trust of those followers?…” demonstrating, I wanted the authors to tell me more than just process leadership is inherently better than trait leadership (Tostanoski, pg. 10). This is just one example of many I asked out loud and in my head.

To pull this into my baking analogy, coincidently, during this semester, I picked up watching the Great British Baking Show, where amateur bakers compete against each other through three challenges during each episode to eliminate one of the bakers. During the second challenge, the bakers are given minimal instructions to create the exact same bake. The show’s judges, Paul and Prue, would notoriously exclude quantities of ingredients and bake times, and then would ask the bakers to complete the task in a very short amount of time and still produce something tasty and aesthetically pleasing. Bake after bake, the baking contestants were consistently frustrated that they were only given partial recipes; but by the end of each bake, they all had something to show the judges. This frustration is how I’ve felt as I’ve contemplated how to be a good leader. I have bits and pieces, but I’ve been looking for the rest of the recipe.

From what I could tell, generally, the bakers that had some intuition into baking principles and those that had previously baked one of these surprise challenges tended to do better, despite different recipes and ingredients. Translating this into what I’m learning about leadership, leaders with some leadership knowledge and prior leadership experience, most likely fair better than those without either. Fast-forwarding to the end of this semester, the class ended with reading Bringing Life to Organizational Change by Margaret Wheatley and Myron Rogers. In this pivotal piece (for me, personally), the authors make the argument that leaders need to latch onto principles over methods and techniques. (Wheatley, pg. 94) They argue that principles, “are the standards to which we hold ourselves accountable. But clear principles provide only standards; they never describe the details of how to do something. They do not restrict our creativity; they simply guide our designs and create coherence among our many diverse efforts. Their clarity serves as an invitation to be creative.” (Wheatley pg. 95–96) And after reading this, everything this semester began to click in place for me. Had we started the semester with this piece, I think that I would have asked, how do I find these principles, where do I start? I would have asked for the instructions and a recipe. But as adrienne maree brown so eloquently emphasizes in Emergent Strategy, “Transformation doesn’t happen in a linear way, at least not one we can always track. It happens in cycles, convergences, explosions.” (brown, pg. 1) Why I am not asking all the how’s to pick principles is because I already know because the rest of the semester readings were my answer. This was my explosion moment. 💥

The entire semester was learning about the principles of leadership, and now all I have to do is outline what is important to me: the thoughts, readings, and conversations that have resonated with me. And then, as Wheatley iterates, once principles are set… they “are not negotiable and cannot be ignored. But how they get interpreted depends on the immediate circumstance and the individuals involved at that time. Every­one is accountable to the principles, yet everyone is free to figure out how to apply them.” (Wheatley, pg. 94) And so, as it’s time for me to outline my principles and live by them as a leader, my baking analogy has fallen apart. By this, I mean that to bake and to bake well, there are hard and fast rules you have to abide by. Baking is chemistry that can’t be negotiated. On the other hand, cooking has many of the same rules but is much more flexible on how to get from ingredients to a finished, and hopefully, tasty meal. I’m also way better at cooking than I am at baking, so there’s that.

Getting to the Principles

The basics of cooking are pretty simple: have ingredients, find a place to cook, obtain some cooking utensils (maybe know how they work), have some prior cooking experience, have an idea of what you want to cook and how you want it to taste, and finally know your audience. If you have all of the above, you have everything you need to cook something, at least. Whether it’s good or not will depend primarily on your experience and perhaps your ingredients’ quality. To improve your cooking, talking with your audience and reviewing your results is critical, but then again, you don’t have to do any of that to continue cooking.

For me, the principles I am setting forth below are primarily derived from the readings, conversations, and assignments from this semester. However, they only hold any value because they resonated with me, aligned with my beliefs, and supported/explained my experiences. This is a working list. I will continue to reiterate that, but as of December 15, 2020, my leadership principles are as follow:

  • People first
  • Dig (in) for passion
  • Boots on the ground
  • Embrace the uneasy and always try (do it) again
  • Having a running list of other essential theories to add or swap in

People first

Putting people first shouldn’t be a complicated thought, but unfortunately, because not all people have been put first for so long. People first, by my definition, is to simply do no harm as a leader. This is obviously a lot harder to write than to do because we’re working against so many systems of oppression and a history of harm and violence. Our readings from Freire, hooks, Kelley, Gramsci, Fernandez and Paredes, and Simpson focus on what needs to happen to lift oppression and center at the margins. And while this principle isn’t to remind me to not be harmful, it’s to remind me to question what’s harming others and find ways to help solve those problems because organizations are living organizations (thank you, adrienne maree brown and Simpson). Living organisms have to be taken care of to thrive. That starts with putting people first. For me, this has manifested in a few ways throughout this semester. In my initial leadership philosophy paper, I wrote, “Of the many great leaders that I have encountered in person, in books, and elsewhere one of the many qualities that these individuals possess that I’ve found to be common is around empathy.” (Tostanoski, pg. 1) And while I still agree with my former self that empathy is essential, there are so many other people first actions that I’ve considered since then. For instance, while reading Ospina and Su and the readings from my Race and Diversity in Higher Education class, race and ethnicity’s conversation became central to my understanding of leadership. Opsina and Su end their conversation on race within leadership with: “We conclude by stating that race is not only relevant but central to leadership in social change organizations: leaders must grapple with the ‘raw materials’ of socially constructed race-ethnicity to help constituents tackle and engage with collective identities in social change work.” (pg. 4) I couldn’t agree more, especial with my knowledge of history and my understanding of how the world needs to change in regards to race moving forward. I now look at leadership through a race-conscious lens, which is also a people first lens. Bringing this conversation back into my personal sphere while reflecting on all three of my cognitive ethnographies, I wrote about working with two distinctly different groups. A group of students that I manage/lead, and a group of coworkers with more authority, and I noticed that my contrasting role with these groups messed with my mind. I was providing so much more empathy to those below me than those above me. And although I don’t have a reason why yet, this is not a people first moment for me. Realizing this, it’s been imperative for me to treat everyone with as much empathy despite my relationship professionally with them in my organization. This is what I call my empathy lens. I am sure to collect more people first lenses as continue my professional career. As I move into my next principle, what I want to clarify is that people first is rooted in human decency, and that’s why it’s first. People and their well-being come first, especially over profits. Dig (in) for passion is the organizational benefit of putting people first.

Dig (in) for passion

Throughout much of this semester, content has focused on the relationship between leaders and their community and partners (the words “follower” and “subordinate” have traditionally been used, but I want to step away from that hierarchical language). Dig (in) for passion has two parts. The first is simple. Dig (in) has to do with my passions and making sure my work aligns with my values and goals. Kouzes and Posner, in their modeling the way principle, iterate that, “when you understand who you are and what your values are, then you can give your voice to those values. (pg. 14)” Similarly, Wheatley posits, “we can only engage people in the change process from the beginning and see what’s possible. If the issue is meaningful to them, they will become enthu­siastic and bright advocates. If we want people’s intelligence and support, we must welcome them as cocreators. People only support what they create.” (pg. 6) and while I know this quote is about inspiring creativity in my community, I’m taking it to heart for myself. I have to dig into my passion, to inspire others.

Boots on the ground

This principle truly originated when I was trying to internalize something that happens to me often as a social media manager; where some days I’m writing, editing, publishing, and responding to social media posts — you know, truly living up to the stereotype that “I get paid to tweet.” These are the days where my boots are on the ground; I’m in the trenches; I’m living the work that requires a lot of process and precision. There are several reasons why I believe in the value of this work. Before this semester started, I had just begun a new manager role, with more assigned power than in the past. As I entered into this new role, my responsibilities landed slightly higher than the ground. Reflecting on my second ethnography of the class, when I expected more from my students than I should have, I wrote, “putting this in the context of adrienne marie brown’s chapter on fractals, I am realizing I’m not thinking small enough. I’ve not demonstrated what I want from these students as I have been thinking about the bigger picture.” (Tostanoski, pg. 8) It’s important for me to be a transformative leader, and I also realize that I am a big fan of emergent leadership rather than assigned, and so boots on the ground are rooted in inspiring passion, as I’ve outlined in Dig (in) for passion.

Embrace the uneasy and always try (do it) again

This principle is rooted in all three of my cognitive ethnographies and is supported by a few of the readings. I’ve always been the type of person that trusts data and the story of numbers. If things went well, I’d repeat the process. If things went poorly, I’d pivot, adjust, and try again. But what about failures with people? When we first read Helana Liu’s, When Leaders Fail: A Typology of Failures and Framing Strategies, I appreciated the nuances of how failure is perceived, especially as it pertains to framing, but the depth of the failures described was foreign to me. However, layering Wheatley’s recommendation to experiment as a leader as a way to move through organizational change in parallel with Achinstein’s conversation on the benefits of community conflict: “the processes of conflict are critical to understanding what distinguishes a professional community that maintains stability and the status quo from a community-engaged in ongoing inquiry and change,” I started to contemplate how to better adapt from my interpersonal successes, failures, and interactions. The conflicts I faced in my third ethnography illuminated the need for me to begin experimenting, especially in spaces where I am the lower-level employee, and my need to manage up is critically important for me.

Other leadership thoughts that aren’t principles yet, but super important IMO.

The final thing I want to note about my leadership journey is that there are so many other concepts just as important to me as these principles that I’ve learned during this class; however, I don’t think that they warrant a principle (right now) and I’ve run out of spaces in this paper. They might warrant a principle slot later on, and similarly, they might’ve warranted a place previously in my experience. Thoughts that are important to me from our readings and my learning during this class:

  • Listen to nature as proposed by thoughts by brown, Wheatley, and Simpson
  • Be a transformational leader as outlined by Gardner
  • I’m a believer in the leader/manager role and that managers and leaders can be both
  • Keep writing simple so the masses can understand
  • Don’t forget history
  • Question all the systems, all the time
  • Leadership can be found in the smallest of moments with the closest or most distant of people
  • Simpson’s Constellation analogy is beautiful

What’s next?

The thing is that every leadership moment happens in a different setting, with different circumstances, different people, in different places … different, different, different. Even when a meal is made in the same kitchen, with the same tools, by the same person, with the same recipe, the actual food is always different at the end of the day. And so what I’m getting at is that every leadership moment is more like a meal. No two meals are ever the same, because even if everything’s the same, the ingredients cannot be. What I’ve outlined as my principles today are how I go about cooking my leadership meal (corny, I know). When better ingredients, a new cooking utensil, a better kitchen, a new method, I will update my guiding recipe (principles). I was looking for a how-to and process, and what I am leaving this semester with is one how to: always follow my principles.

References

Achinstein, B. (2002). Conflict amid community: The micropolitics teacher collaboration. Teachers College Record, 104(3), 421–455. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9620.00168

brown, a.m. (2017) Emergent strategy: Shaping change, changing worlds. AK Press.

Gardner, J.W. (2013). On Leadership.

Kouzes, J. M. & Posner B. Z. (2012). Chapter 1: When Leaders Are at Their Best. In The Leadership Challenge. San Francisco, CA: The Leadership Challenge. (pp. 9–40.)

Liu, H. (2010). When leaders fail: A typology of failures and framing strategies. Management Communication Quarterly, 24(2), 232–259.

Northouse, P. G. (2016). Chapter 1: Introduction. In Leadership: Theory and Practice. 6th Edition. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. (Pp. 1–16.)

Ospina, S., & Su, C. (2009). Weaving color lines: Race, ethnicity, and the work of leadership in social change organizations. Leadership, 5(2), 131–170.

Simpson, L. B. (2017). Chapter 12: Constellations of co-resistance. In As we have always done: Indigenous freedom through radical resistance. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press

Tostanoski, T. (2020) Cognitive Ethnography #1.

Tostanoski, T. (2020) Cognitive Ethnography #2.

Tostanoski, T. (2020) Cognitive Ethnography #3.

Wheatley, M. (2007). Goodbye, Command and Control. In Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. (pp. 64–74)

Wheatley, M. (2007). Bringing Life to Organizational Change. In Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. (pp. 75–82)

Wheatley, M. (2007). Relying on Everyone’s Creativity. In Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. (pp. 75–82)

Bringing race-conscious & DEI thought into social media strategy at UC Davis while studying Organization & Leadership but entries span my whole life.