Elastic Leadership Proximity

I began paying attention to World Cup Soccer in 1999. I had had a serious compression fracture in my back just as the previous school year ended, and so I spent my summer velcro-strapped into a hard plastic back-brace somewhat blankly staring at game after game—three of them a day.

Through my painful haze, I became amazed at how the best players and the best leaders operated with a comprehensive understanding of not only where to be, but where to go next in anticipation of how the action unfolded. While the best players and the best leaders were definitely not always the same person (those strikers often seemed to be driven by personal glory alone), they both understood spacing with a scientist’s intellect and in the very best of them, an artist’s sensibility. They forever understood where to be.

In what seems like a decade ago in May 2020, I wrote about a concept regarding classroom practice, we dubbed “Elastic Proximity.” It has been fascinating to see this language take root in our work with teachers over the summer and through the Fall. Here is a handy definition of Elastic Proximity from our original post on the topic called “Beyond Synchronous and Asynchronous: Elastic Proximity”:

We can better describe ideal online teaching as elastic proximity, an approach to teaching in which the teacher makes decisions about delivery, student guidance, and student skill development based on the ideal proximity of the teacher to students, of the students to other students, and of the individual student to the teacher. By approaching the planning for teaching and learning in this way, teachers will focus on students first rather than a “this way or that way” idea of what the teacher will be doing. Thus teaching strategies become elastic based on student learning and skill development needs rather than strategies existing in a sort of hyper-simplified delivery methodology.

As we thought more about the central concept of Elastic Proximity, we found ourselves investigating its applicability to leadership, specifically leadership choices as understood through the lens of proximity. I have had the image of a great soccer player—a leader on the field—in the back of my mind more and more recently.

The transfer of the idea from teacher to leader is not difficult to capture: we can describe ideal leadership as an expression of Leadership Proximity, an approach to leadership in which the leader makes decisions about personnel, strategy, execution, and stewardship based on the ideal proximity of the leader to constituent groups*, of constituents to other constituents, and of individual constituents to the leader. Thus leadership strategies become elastic based on the ideal (healthiest/most productive) proximity to constituent needs and strategic objectives.

[*Constituent groups: students, Board, faculty, parents, alumni, friends, as well as the larger community within which the institution exists.]

Leaders cannot be everywhere, not in every conversation, not in every moment when a dialogue moves from decision to execution.

In short, the leader cannot be and should not be Atlas—the weight of the world is not his/her/their job to bear alone. However, it is the leader’s responsibility to create the context, both strategic and built-cultural that sustains and supports a system that can bear the weight. To do so, however, requires the leader to make reasoned and humane decisions about where to be in relation to the living systems of the institution. This is Leadership Proximity.

A Measuring Tape (Leadership Proximity) and a Compass (Nine Virtues)

Leadership Proximity cannot serve as a guide on its own, however. To use it alone would be like trying to find water with one divining rod. Leaders must underpin it with an understanding of leadership virtues that translate into actions within the context within which the leader operates.

Dr. Karl Haden’s books based on the Nine Virtues (Humility, Honesty, Courage, Perseverance, Hope, Charity, Balance, Wisdom, and Justice) and their relationship with exceptional leadership provide an apt launching pad for a vital discussion of the relationship between an ancient understanding of virtue and successful navigation of the unprecedented leadership challenges of our time, including COVID-19, the national reckoning with systemic racism, and our painful cultural and economic divides.

There is a reason that these virtues have stood the test of time. They are universal and time tested. They are the foundations on which positive transformational leadership is built and the keys to a culture that values the common good—something that is essential in fighting an enemy like COVID, systemic racism, and tremendous inequality. Importantly, it is clear we must assume that they will be as essential in facing whatever challenges come next.

The leader cannot be and should not be Atlas—the weight of the world is not his/her/their job to bear alone.

In these rough and extraordinary days, we have been spending too much energy polishing our crystal balls to try and get a read of the future when we should spend more time looking through a magnifying glass at the small print of the past. Additionally, leaders must spend as much time identifying WHO they should be in this time as they do WHAT they are going to do. We are not the first generation to face crippling complexity, red-faced/fact-absent shouting matches, and persistent fear of a world permanently and dangerously changing. We are just the latest of many generations of leaders who are called to lean into the practices demanded of the Nine Virtues in order to lead, instead of simply making decisions in reaction to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Focusing on Leadership Proximity and the Nine Virtues simultaneously allows a leader to pair the WHO and the WHAT of leadership with the WHERE (proximity) of leadership.

Not to be Missed: Personal Self-care and Leadership Proximity

Without prioritizing his/her/their own self-care, a leader might create equilibrium between Leadership Proximity and the Nine Virtues with grace… for a time; however, it is inevitable that such equilibrium will be impossible to sustain without devotion to personal health and well-being. Too many leaders fail to see themselves as needing to build and maintain a substructure of physical and mental habits of well-being. As a result, leaders often treat self-care as the priority to be compromised without recognizing its centrality to their efficacy as leaders.

At EXPLO Elevate, we have been reflecting on two interrelated topics with bearing on self-care:

1. Building personal antifragility. (My colleague Sudipti Kumar and I wrote about Antifragility Quotient in the summer). Here are its characteristics:

    1. Resilience
    2. Curiosity
    3. Flexibility
    4. Ability to Trust
    5. Creativity
    6. Reflectiveness
    7. Commitment to Mission, Values, and Strategy
    8. A new addition to the list: Discipline—the ability to be disciplined in order to prioritize one’s self-care even when it is difficult to do so. Exercise, reading, reflection, and curiosity take time.

2. Developing and Maintaining supportive relationships both inside and outside of the institution a leader leads. If we imagine three legs of a stool: one leg is support from those to whom one reports (a supervisor, a Board of Trustees perhaps); another leg is support from those that report to a leader, and too often neglected, the final leg is support from a person or group of people who live outside the bubble of an individual institution (a coach, a mentor, an association).

Similar to the way good teaching requires Elastic Proximity, so too does Leadership. Developing a fluid understanding of where to be in relation to personnel and to strategic or tactical demands is one way to understand the essential leadership task. Successful team sport athletes and leaders understand spacing on the field, the pitch, or the ice, and they are in a constant process of adjusting where they are in relation to others. Managing oneself, others, as well as ideas and actions takes nuanced approaches to a sort of complexity that is always in motion.

Ross Peters is a lifelong educator, poet and photographer who leads school strategy for Explo Elevate.