Jim Christenson retired last year after serving 40 years in university and federal facilities management. He can be reached at email@example.com.
"The very essence of leadership is that you have to have a vision…"
- Fr. Theodore Hesburgh,past President of the University of Notre Dame
Consider these questions: What is leadership? Why does our organization need it? What if we don't have it? If we want it, where do we find it? If we can't find it, how can we develop it?
Before you read further, disabuse yourself of the idea that the only leaders are the rare "born leaders." Leader and author Warren Bennis maintains that leadership is not a rare skill. Leaders are made rather than born, they are mostly ordinary people, and leadership can be found (and is necessary) throughout an organization. Finally, Bennis reminds us that leadership is not about control, direction, or manipulation, but instead about alignment of the energies of others behind an attractive goal.
Some of you remember when APPA was actually the acronym for the Association of Physical Plant Administrators. But 20 years ago, we began to refer to our profession as facilities management in lieu of physical plant administration. In the last few years, APPA has been promoting the Leadership Academy, hence preparing facilities managers to take on the role of leadership. What is behind these terms administration, management, and leadership? And is there anything significant in the migration of titles from passive to active?
The education hierarchy of 50 years ago commonly depended on those who cared for facilities to tend to that business using, literally, tools and physical skills. These officials neither expected nor desired that the facilities staff show initiative or give advice on facilities improvements in support of the institution's mission. Many of us know some facilities pioneers who didn't fit into that restrictive mold, but they were probably the exception.
Management as a process worthy of study and research became more prominent in the 1950s. But the sudden need to deal strongly with energy issues in October 1973 eliminated any lingering doubt that physical plant administrators need management skills. The person at the top of the physical plant organizational chart was being called on to do more than keep business running as usual. That individual had to put programs in place to seriously conserve energy and money. Other challenges loomed. The administrator assumed the role of a manager and became identified as such.
More recently, our society has recognized that enlightened leadership is called for in many areas, and that it sometimes has not been there when needed. In a business environment, changing at the speed of light, education, and the organization that provides its facilities support, are coming to understand the urgent need for leadership and change too.
Moving from management to leadership suggests many transitions for the person heading the traditional facilities organizational chart. These include moving from dealing with things to dealing with people; from techniques to principles; from doing things right (efficiency) to doing the right things (effectiveness); from left brain activity (analytical) to right brain activity (holistic); and from control to empowerment.
Might it be the increasing call for intentional change that creates the need for more and better leadership? I think so. Businesses, institutions, and nearly all of society realize that many of the old ways of doing things are no longer effective. Therefore change from those old ways is essential. Forward-thinking organizations are demanding leadership that can effect the changes.
Leaders have come forward on special occasions from the beginning of humankind. So leadership is not a new skill. But it is axiomatic that, unless someone feels that the direction needs to be changed, there is no need for a leader. In fact, there may not be a need for a manager or an administrator either. There have been periods in the world's history when very little changed from decade to decade, even from one century to another. In times of no change and no perceived need to change, leaders will be redundant.
But no one living at this moment can truthfully claim that deliberate change is not a near-continuous requirement. If that is accepted as fact, who is it that gets change underway? Answer: a person who has an idea of what should be and also has ideas and thoughts to get to what should be from what is. Gary Hamel uses this phrase: "Imagine the future that you can create. The 'should be' is, really, a vision for the organization, the 'preferred future'."
Look again at Fr. Theodore Hesburgh's statement on leadership: "The very essence of leadership is that you have to have a vision." Warren Bennis defines leadership similarly: "The capacity to create a compelling vision and translate it into action and sustain it." Robert Greenleaf, author of The Servant as Leader, makes it still more challenging by stating that a leader needs to have a sense for the unknowable and to foresee the unforeseeable. Between the three authors, we can see the components of a leader: vision, action, sustainable, prophetic.
Consider a few people history has identified as leaders-Alexander the Great, Joan of Arc, Abraham Lincoln, or Sir Winston Churchill. Each measured up to the definition of a leader. And they met another definition of leader too: a person who is going somewhere, and is able to persuade others to go along.
A leader doesn't just point to the goal. A leader by definition leads others toward the goal. Robert Quinn, author of Deep Change puts it this way: "If I say to you, 'Follow me into this land of uncertainty as we try to learn our way to a new level of performance', the first thing you do is look at my feet…the followers trust the leader and the leader holds the trust through integrity and role modeling."
It is interesting to think of the applications of Webster's 10th New Collegiate Dictionary's definition of leader: "1: something that leads: as a: a primary or terminal shoot of a plant."
This may unintentionally give some insight into the tasks of a human leader. What does the leader of, say, a spruce tree do? It provides direction, governs the rate of growth, explores new territory, fights for the right to occupy that territory, and is exposed and vulnerable. If it is wounded by disease, insects, or overtopping trees, another replaces it as the new leader. Similarly, a facilities manager must be a leader or someone who can lead the organization through growth and change will replace him or her.
Stephen Covey, author of Principle-Centered Leadership, states that the first challenge of a leader is to establish continuing consciousness of the principles foundational to organizational effectiveness and quality-in short, to establish "true north." He tells us that the second challenge is to create conditions enabling the organizational culture to internalize and apply those principles. He is advising that it is not enough to have that great vision of the preferred future. To lead the organization to that external shining light on the hill, the leader must also identify and lead toward a preferred future for the internal organizational culture. Without that, the most heroic leadership efforts will fail. They will be one-person shows with a lot of talk and no real results.
The people in the ranks, on the front line with the customers, are the only ones who can transform a preferred future into a reality. They must know and accept the preferred future, which demands a work culture where trust is pervasive and true-north principles are shared. Max De Pree, in his book, Leading Without Power, reinforces the points that Covey and Quinn make concerning the leader's role in creating an atmosphere of trust. He states, "Building trust in organizations has become a chief responsibility of leaders, an essential duty especially in the eyes of followers."
And, while Alexander the Great led a mighty force to realize most of his vision, he isn't the preferred model for today's leader. Robert Greenleaf suggests this test of a leader: Do those served (by the leader) grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, and more likely themselves to become servants?
Does this servant-leader business sound strange? Perhaps. New? Not so. Servant leadership focuses on making everyone in the organization successful in fact and perception, while drawing minimal attention to the (leader's) self. And more than 2550 years ago, Lao-tzu is reported to have advised:
A leader is best when people barely know he exists. Not so
good when people obey and acclaim him.
Worse when they despise him.
But of a good leader who
talks little when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will
say 'We did it ourselves'.
You may be a person who enjoys being at the front of the parade, gathering the glory. But the leader's role is to support the members of the organization being led. The image of servant-leader, while tough for some to swallow, may well produce the most lasting results. If the leader whose vision blazed so clearly in the sky is able to cause that vision to be accepted by the rank and file members of the organization, the vision is, with that acceptance, close to realization. If, after reaching the goal, every member of the organization is proudly on parade and the leader is standing on the sidelines cheering them on, that leader has the best of rewards.