I’ve been thinking and talking about leadership quite a bit lately. It’s somehow bringing all of the research I’ve done on teacher burnout, motivation, educational technology, mentoring, adjuncts, and faculty learning communities together. Who knew?
Somebody called me a “thought leader” and I had to look up what that meant. Was it an insult? Compliment? A Monty Python joke I should get? A movie reference from Blade Runner? A song I should know? Merde. My mind went instantly to Orwell’s thoughtcrimes and thoughtpolice. Oh dear, that’s not me.
And thanks to Wikipedia magic, I found that reference. I also found an article with that phrase in the title, so I clicked on it. I got to the fourth paragraph and decided I was wasting my life reading David Brooks’ version of Thought Leader (I didn’t look at the author at first. #Ick).
Then I said to a friend, “Ever heard of a thought leader?” She asked why and I explained.
Huge explosion of laughter.
She now uses this phrase when we’re trying to make a decision, say, like where to go for dinner.
She’ll say, “I don’t know. Let’s ask the Thought Leader.”
Me: Damn. All. Y’all.
Huge explosion of laughter.
Me: “Where should we hike on Saturday?”
Friend: “Don’t know, Thought Leader, why don’t use the fancy-pants Internets and find us a place?”
Huge explosion of laughter.
Me: [Eye roll] Large sip of beer. Middle finger points to the sky.
So here’s the thing: I’m not a thought leader. I just read a lot and I try to synthesize the ideas of people that I think are smarter than me.
I’m thinking there are three broad categories of leadership. So here goes:
You can be a Chump, a Champion, or a Chicken Little.
Let’s start with some low-culture and work our way up. All text below is from Urban Dictionary and Wikipedia.
Chump Someone who does not understand the basics of life on earth. Confused easily. ‘My friend Ali is such a chump. She talks a lot but nothing of any relevance comes out. In fact she is a world champion chump’.
Chicken Little The story is listed as Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 20C, which includes international examples of folktales that make light of paranoia and mass hysteria. There are several Western versions of the story, of which the best-known concerns a chick that believes the sky is falling when an acorn falls on its head.
The chick decides to tell the King and on its journey meets other animals (mostly other fowl) which join it in the quest. After this point, there are many endings. In the most familiar, a fox invites them to its lair and there eats them all.
Alternatively, the last one, usually Cocky Lockey, survives long enough to warn the chick, who escapes. In others all are rescued and finally speak to the King.
Champion It is also possible to champion a cause. In an ideological sense, encompassing religion, a champion may be an evangelist, a visionary advocate who clears the field for the triumph of the idea. Or the champion may merely make a strong case for a new corporate division to a resistant board of directors. Such a champion may take on responsibility for publicizing the project and garnering funding. But in this case he or she is beyond a simple promoter. The word is thus used as a verb.
The Chicken Little story stuck with me because it makes a lot of sense if you help people who teach with and without technology. The sky is falling! The sky is falling! The acorn is a new LMS! The acorn is new software! The acorn is big giant budget cuts that are going to gut everything you’ve been doing! The sky is falling! The sky is falling!
It also applies to leadership because you can tell your team “Chicken Little don’t work here, y’all. I didn’t hire him. The sky is not falling. We just need to _________.” And they laugh. It helps to diffuse the pressure.
I read this “Chicken Little don’t work here” advice somewhere by some thought leader but I can’t remember who. Hence my problem as a researcher who cares little about attribution lately. I remember the idea not the person. Sorry.
A Champion is a bit more poetic. A bit more romantic. A bit more heroic. A bit more intelligent. A bit more versatile. Not quite religious. Not quite corporate. I’m thinking Knight In Shining Armor type-champion. Brienne of Tarth badassness. It’s a noun. It’s a verb. Thought Leaders champion ideas and people they like. Ideas and people they can trust. Ideas and people worth following. They look up and down to make sure it’s the acorn and not the sky. They don’t use exclamation points lightly. They don’t run around getting everybody all worked up.
Thought leader, as a phrase, just sounds a bit new-age-like. Too life-coach. Too touchy-feely. To me. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’ve spent too much time with dystopian literature.
Here’s what I know: I’ve had quite a few Champions along the way in my career and I think it’s worth-while to champion for people and for ideas. When I spoke to the SBCTC New Faculty Institute last September, I asked everyone in the room to think about the champions who helped them get there. My audience was newly hired tenure-track and FT temps in the CC system. They got that rare full-time job. That even rarer tenure-track position. Here I was talking to the very people I had at one point in my career hoped to be. I stared down a room of teachers and asked them to think of their Champions. I saw some smiles. Nodding heads. Some furrowed brows lost in thought. I paused for silence.
It was the moment I felt a real connection in the room among the group. If there were thought bubbles above their heads, I would have seen photos of their Champions. And then I asked them to champion their colleagues who are adjuncts. Help them get here next year or some place else someday, I said.
And thus, don’t be a Chump. And don’t be a Chicken Little Thought Leader Chump. Don’t champion bad ideas.
Here’s a quick recipe for avoiding Chumpiness–Read people’s work you think have smart ideas. Read the people they think are smart. Think. Talk to people. Listen. Synthesize ideas. Talk to people. Listen. Read. Write. Listen. Look up. Look down. The sky is not falling.
I’m on a panel next week where we are talking about the lack of leadership opportunities in higher education and I’ve decided that my alliterative Chump, Chicken Little, Champion may be a Leadership Trifecta that I can use. Why not? (It will be easy for me to remember, and I need to prepare for something to say. #Yikes).
Here’s my (choke, cough) *leaderly* thoughts/advice:
Don’t call yourself a Thought Leader if you are trying lead people with your thoughts. (That title is for others to decide about you. Don’t call yourself that. You sound like a Chump).
Talk down the Chicken Littles (they are reactive Chumps, not proactive leaders who think).
Be a Champion (somebody was for you, right?)
Don’t champion Chumps who lead like Chicken Littles. (A Memoir).
And if all else fails, I’ll quote this Pink Floyd song.
Image credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henny_Penny