If you’ve been reading my blog posts for a while, you know how much I love metaphors and analogies. I find them so helpful for sorting out my understandings, and I have another one to share with you today.

The question I want to ponder with you is whether a leader should be more like a chess master or gardener. I first heard this analogy when reading Team of Teams which I mentioned as one of 6 Non-Education Books All Educators Should Read.

Chess Master
In the book, General Stanley McChrystal, a retired four-star general, describes how some leaders see those under them as pieces on a chess board. Their job is to position them for success and dictate each and every move. This works well in an orderly game like chess where the game pauses until a turn is taken and where there is a well-defined set of actions. The chess pieces themselves do not think because that’s not their job. They just do what they’re told. So, a skilled chess player can take in all the available information and make the best possible decisions.

Historically, this was the expected role of a leader. But is this still the best role for a leader today?

In education, this might look like a superintendent, principal, or other leader who dictates what each staff member should do. In an effort to achieve the desired results, the leader makes all the decisions and it is each staff member’s job to make them happen.

This probably would work well enough if there were only a handful of staff members to oversee, but what happens when a leader is responsible for tens or hundreds of people? What happens when things don’t go exactly as planned and there’s no immediate response from the leader telling everyone what to do? Situations like those are very challenging when staff members have not been given opportunities to make decisions and learn from them.

Consider then what a leader who sees herself as a gardener might do. A gardener’s job is to provide the best environment in which the plants can thrive, not to actually tell the plants what to do. Sometimes this may mean providing more or less sun, water, or nutrients. Sometimes it means pulling out a weed that’s getting in the way or attaching a vine to a wall so that it can continue to grow.

Historically, this was not the expected role of a leader. Leaders who did not regularly demonstrate their authority may have been considered weak. So, could this be the best role for a leader today?

In education, this might look like a superintendent, principal, or other leader who sets high expectations and then lets the staff decide on how to accomplish them. The leader is not absent, but rather uses her energy to nurture her staff. She provides what is needed for the staff to thrive. The staff members won’t often use the same method as the leader to achieve the goals, but they will still be accomplished and the staff will grow.

It’s been my experience that educators love to work for leaders who act more like gardeners. Educators want control over their actions and want to be a part of the process, not just a mindless drone.

This analogy breakdown reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Simon Sinek:

The role of a leader is not to come up with all the great ideas. The role of a leader is to create an environment in which great ideas can happen.

I have worked for both kinds of leaders. I know that personally, I have become the person I am from being under leaders in Downey Unified School District like John Harris and Denise Takano who set high standards for me and then provided mentoring and support to achieve those goals.

I worry though that there are too many leaders who think that anything short of exercising complete control is a sign that they are not legitimate. That is such a shame, because many leaders have amazingly talented people under them that could thrive, achieve many things, and make the leader look even better.

I think that leaders need to reflect on what they really want and whether the path they are on will accomplish it. I have spent enough time working for Chess Masters to last a lifetime. I strive to be a Gardener and want to surround myself with friends and colleagues who feel the same.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Post comment