17 Jan Why leaders lead, part 01 — Recognition

When I started teaching, a colleague of mine and I started the Leadership team — a student-centric group aiming to improve the school culture and experience. It’s divided into nine units with teachers heading each of them, according to their strengths and interests. They’re all named after a value they find important : courage, loyalty, responsibility. Here’s a story about my unit, trust.


Why leaders lead, part 01 – Recognition

The four parts of this story aim to show why leaders do what they do. Those who lead don’t choose to do so as to merit a better rank, achieve results, receive the credit, garner praise, or be shown recognition. In teams where leadership is valued and cultivated by all team members, motivation stems instead from more collective reasons :

  • Team members are trusted as experts within their domains and are expected to counsel leaders and teammates with solutions instead of bringing forth problems.
  • Results are secondary to the growth of team members, allowing them to better their craft and to develop their leadership abilities.
  • All team members vie for the growth of their team, and sacrifice their time and effort to protect its integrity

Part 01. Recognition

A few months ago, at the end of the school year, the student Leadership team helped to organize and hold an outdoors water-themed day full of activities for the whole school. They worked in pairs to host games and challenges in twenty-odd stations all across the school yard. The planning committee consisted of over a dozen teachers, each involved in various capacities and at different times during the process.

The event went smoothly. Surprisingly so, even, the result of dozens of hours of hard work from the part of a select few. That’s usually how those kinds of events are successful : innovative behind-the-scenes labour from those who sacrifice their time and effort. They have no real blueprint for the event, and find solutions to the problems only they themselves can imagine. They build something out of nothing.

At the end of the event, as I often do, I took the microphone to conclude the event. Speaking to hundreds of students, I came up with the brilliant idea to encourage them to go thank the few individual I had seen make the sacrifice. Kids can always say thank you more often, right? Out of the dozen involved with the planning of the event, a handful of names came out of my mouth. And while my improvised good idea made sense, it turned out to be a mistake.

The ones I mentioned didn’t care. They were too busy taking care of other things and solving new problems, anyways. The ones I didn’t mention, however, cared very much. I ended up having a lengthy discussion with a close colleague that felt under-appreciated.

After similar situations, part of me wants to never thank anyone publicly for fear of omitting someone. You can’t offend anyone if you make a point of omitting to thank everyone purposefully, right? Another part of me thought of painstakingly making elaborate lists of everyone involved with events and thanking them all publicly at the end of them, so as to never letting anyone down.

Leaders don’t lead to be recognized. They don’t lead to be thanked or to be praised. Instead, their actions stem from their desire to contribute to the growth of their team. It’s bigger than themselves.

And while I’m still trying to convince myself that it’s the right thing to do, I’m now one-hundred percent leaning towards a more leadership-oriented approach. Leaders don’t lead to be recognized. They don’t lead to be thanked or to be praised. Instead, their actions stem from their desire to contribute to the growth of their team. It’s bigger than themselves. They make decisions not to further their own interests, but to allow every member of their team to feel a sense of belonging to its positive culture and to protect it, together.

Never be afraid of omission. Make it known to your team that you will purposefully omit public recognition. Not because it’s not deserved, but because it’s not necessary to build a culture of trust within the team. Recognition does have its place — it is quite meaningful when done in an individual setting rather than in a public one. It’s scalable, and meant to be differentiated. Strive to convince your team that public recognition shouldn’t serve as a source of motivation. Instead, take the time to individually recognize contributions, regardless of their importance to the sum of the project.