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Center for Enlightened Leadership

Attentive Leadership

  Robert W. Cole

Robert W. Cole
Managing Editor
and Senior Associate

Sometimes the best leadership is followership. And often the most empowered leadership is that which does not seek the spotlight, but rather seeks to help produce the best results for all.

As I consider the topic of this issue, “Empowering and Uplifting Others,” I think of Jeremy Lin, the latest (and wildly unlikely) phenom in the National Basketball Association. A Harvard graduate of Taiwanese descent, and a devout but undemonstrative Christian, Lin had been largely overlooked by pro talent scouts and cut by two NBA teams before joining the New York Knicks. Little was expected of him; he slept on a friend’s couch rather than run the risk of renting an apartment that he might not be able to afford if released yet again.

Then “Linsanity” struck. Plagued by injuries to his starters, the Knicks coach (whose job was also at risk) took the chance of inserting Lin into the starting lineup. What happened next was unprecedented. Jeremy Lin scored the most points in any player’s first five games as a starter since the NBA merged with the American Basketball Association in 1976, and won a contract guaranteed for the rest of the season. He set NBA records for a player in points and other measures of performance for someone coming off the bench for his initial games as a starter. In the short term, at least, he saved his job (and probably the job of his coach). He transformed the morale of and hopes for the Knicks. Ticket sales at Madison Square Garden, previously dismal, skyrocketed. Worldwide attention was riveted on this modest young guy.

Closer examination revealed Lin’s intensive mental and physical preparations during the year and a half prior to his miraculous breakout. Scoring lots of points was only part of what he did that transformed the Knicks as a team. He also helped his teammates be better. He led by knowing them—who they are, how they play, where they are on the court in relationship to him at any given moment. And he routinely deflected credit to his teammates, even though the Knicks were going nowhere until he started getting real playing time on February 4.

“It’s not because of me; it’s because we’re coming together as a team,” Lin insisted. “We started making these steps earlier, but we were still losing close games and so obviously it wasn’t fun. But when you win, that solves a lot of problems. We’ve been winning and we’ve been playing together.”

Playing together. Hmm…there’s playing together, when everybody’s on the court together but essentially in it for themselves, and playing together as a unit, as a team. The difference in this case, the case of Jeremy Lin, seems to be a leader who helped find ways of making his teammates better, who helped them believe in themselves again—and helped everyone else believe it too, at least for a blissful time.

A guy I used to work with fancied himself a scholar of leadership. He was fond of “management by walking around” (which I endorse absolutely) and of doing what he called “listening with my mouth open.” He believed that even while he was lecturing (ceaselessly) to the help, he was also able to gauge their work and their state of mind (which interested him a good deal less than the work they were or were not turning out).

Different leaders obviously have, and learn over time, differing styles of leadership. My mentor—Stanley Elam, long-time editor of Phi Delta Kappan—used to irk me by averring, “An editor doesn’t have to be smart himself; he just has to know who the smart people are.” Many years later, I see what Stanley meant. An editor, and a leader too, can provide important leadership by watching and listening keenly and attentively, then sorting out and making sense of what works best. Stanley also said, “A good editor has to stay far enough ahead of his readers so as to lead them, but not so far ahead as to lose sight of them.”

Stanley, inveterate jock that he was, and quiet leader that he was, would have loved Jeremy Lin.

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