First the Leader


I experienced a profound leadership moment at community band rehearsal last night. The conductor stood at the podium, baton in hand, setting the time and tempo of the piece we were playing. We all knew our parts, yet together we were not quite achieving our goal of making music. The conductor stopped and started a few times, but he still wasn’t hearing music. He said his baton felt heavy with trying to pull together each of our parts. So he stopped and put down his baton. Then, he shared with us the history of the arrangement. He asked us to try and play our instruments with a sense of vulnerability, to play without fear. To be present, to let go of the energy of our day, and be open to feeling the music, not just playing the music. He took this time, knowing it was time away from rehearsing.   He asked each of us to find it within ourselves, this place of being present and fully engaged, to honor the creator of the piece and the emotion he was trying to convey about a tragic historical event. Again, he picked up the baton. We played. The conductor stopped again. There was a moment of beautiful silence after the last vibration ended and he simply said, “My baton felt light that time.”

The conductor is the leader of the band. There is no question of that fact, yet, without each member contributing, beautiful music was not being created. It wasn’t until each player contributed openly, in a “vulnerable” way, that the leader felt like he was truly leading. This is the paradox of leadership – which comes first, the leader or the contributions of those being led?

First the LEADER, then the CONTRIBUTION.
First the CONTRIBUTION, then the LEADER.

There is so much evidence of great leaders among us, however, I’m not sure our cultural lens has been polished enough to celebrate the paradox of leadership. I thought it was so interesting to hear our conductor using the word “vulnerable” to describe the relationship between leader and contributor.   In order to be vulnerable you must have trust. The opposite of trust is fear. And fear, as we know, can move us toward leaders that seem absolutely certain of the steps needing to be taken toward a goal. It’s a way to relinquish a bit of our own role in the outcome. If the conductor had said, “You need to play your part exactly like this,” I would solely have relied upon him and would not have trusted myself as being part of a larger goal. But by asking me to figure out how best I could contribute toward the greater goal, together, we were able to create beauty. While certainty can feel comforting in times of uncertainty, it is still leadership based on fear. It is the leader of hope and openness, who can create a realm of trust, which allows for contributors to perform vulnerably, working together, to create something beautiful.

Jim Selman’s Huffington Post article The Leadership Paradox put it succinctly, stating, “Leadership from this perspective is the ability to operate within the present and appreciate the larger context: that results and possibilities grow not from our individual choices only but from the power and contributions of those we lead.”

First the Egg by
Laura Vaccaro Seeger

A brilliant, yet deceptively simple, picture book to help shape a conversation around leadership paradoxes is Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s “First the Egg.” Her book begins with the proverbial chicken and egg question. While many a scientist and philosopher have recently landed on the answer to this paradox, we all know the circular nature of the question, which came first, the chicken or the egg?The word “First” boldly stands alone in black type against a full-page yellow background. On the opposite page it reads, “the EGG” against an orange background, with an egg illustration at the bottom of the page. When you turn the page, the word “Then” is on the left side and “the CHICKEN” is on the right, above an illustration of a chicken.

First the EGG, then the CHICKEN

This pattern continues throughout the book, as it moves from simple life-cycle concepts – “First the TADPOLE, then the FROG” “First the SEED, then the FLOWER” – until it comes to these two paradoxes….

First the WORD, then the STORY
First the PAINT, then the PICTURE

Every time I read this story I get chills when I turn the page to, “First the Word.”   The book evokes a profound sense of the paradoxes of life. We all know that children learn language and stories from parents, teachers, family, and others and they understand stories and words before they learn to talk, much less learn to read, write and spell individual words. And, we know, if they do not learn to read, write and spell they will not be able to start with the word or to pen their own stories. So, each child must be present and find value in the stories before paying attention enough to learn how each word contributes to the story. So, should it read, “First the STORY, then the WORD?”

We also know that before a child can paint a picture they must have some form of background knowledge, they must know what life looks like, they must have experiences in the world so they can make choices about how each color will contribute to the picture. So, should it read, “First the PICTURE, then the PAINT?”

The book then ends with, “First the CHICKEN.” This simple story can be used for many paradoxes we find in the midst of organizational missions and bottom line pursuits. The books beautifully simple format can help shake loose any preconceptions before beginning the conversation anew about the paradoxes within your midst.

When I was working for a large accounting firm we had a management meeting to roll out a new financial product for our clients. The meeting began first with a calculation of how much profit this product could make for the organization, and then followed with a discussion about the value of the product for our clients. I kept looking around the room to see if anyone else thought this order of presentation was as wrong as it felt. But I didn’t see any other faces with the same questioning look. Right then I was forced to think about the paradox of the presentation. I understood that without a positive bottom line there could be no additional services to offer, and without the service there would be no bottom line.

First the BOTTOM LINE, then the SERVICE.

It was a moment I remember because I knew I wanted to find a place where the paradox felt like it began with –

First the SERVICE, then the BOTTOM LINE.

When I changed to the field of librarianship, there was another paradox I encountered. I would often meet with librarians who seemingly cared more about the books than about the patrons that came into the library.

First the BOOK, then the READER.

While I knew that books and information are the core of the service we were offering, this always felt a little off because it too was a paradox.

First the READER, then the BOOK

We needed to make sure we were always considering the library users or patrons in our selection of book and information choices, but that it was also our responsibility to know about the books even before understanding who might enjoy or need to read them. S.R. Ranganathan, a renowned librarian from India, recognized this paradox by including both within the five laws of library science, “For every book it’s reader. For every reader her/his book.”

Which paradoxes can you shake loose from your organization?

First the CUSTOMER, then the SALES
First the SALES, then the CUSTOMER
First the MISSION, then the IMPACT
First the IMPACT, then the MISSION
First the STUDENT, then the LEARNING
First the LEARNING, then the STUDENT

To not recognize paradoxes within our midst means we will invariably try to force others to contribute in ways we think make sense on the path toward a goal. While much has proven to be achieved with this formula in the past, it has always revealed itself to be mined from a source of fear and many times repression.

The paradox of leadership for me is to figure out how to FIRST honor ourselves, as individuals, as learners, as creators, as passionate beings, striving to be present so that we may make choices that honor those around us, THEN, perhaps, just perhaps, those around us will bring contributions, be inspired to act in ways that will create something greater than ourselves. But, which truly comes first?

3 thoughts on “First the Leader

  1. holy cow this is so beautifully written that i have tears in my eyes. i want to share this with the corporate world, the not-for-profit world and with every parent i know (and many i don’t).

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