The Leadership Square

Leadership can be challenging and lonely, yet rewarding and life-giving. It’s a common writing topic, and many theories have been designed to make people better leaders. Some are helpful, but many provide static ideas that promise positive results in every situation–like forcing a square peg into a round hole. At the risk of sounding like Charlie Brown’s teacher, I’m going to add my own two-cents: the Leadership Square. As each leadership context is different, blanket theories are not always helpful, so this theory is designed to be a bit more dynamic than others. In how a leader relates to his or her followers, leadership is a balancing act between four key elements: authority, friend, coworker, and servant (see diagram below). These four elements work together in various ways to fit leadership roles from CEOs to teachers to parents.

Leadership Square

To square something is to balance it. A leader must balance the four elements within his or her given context to gain followership and produce optimal results. It is important to note that balance doesn’t mean equality between the elements; it means balancing the elements together within a given context. Depending on the situation, you may need more or less emphasis on certain elements in order to be most effective. (This is where the diagram can be unhelpful, since it shows an equal amount of each element.) Balancing the Leadership Square in any given context will lead to increased followership and enable you to carry out your mission more effectively.

Let’s talk about context. I believe this Square can be applied in many leadership scenarios, but each scenario will require wisdom and emphasis on some aspects over others in order to be most effective. Plus, the balance I’ve tried to find in my particular contexts is not necessarily the same balance required for other scenarios. In my experience, the Leadership Square has helped me most in my current role as a Camp Director at a summer camp. I’ve spent time as a student-leader and in leadership roles in both corporate and college athletic settings, but working at a summer camp has, by far, provided the most challenging leadership opportunities and is where I’ve seen myself grow the most. That being said, I’m going to try to color in the Square with a few examples from this particular experience not because I think if people just emulate me they will succeed (in reality many times the opposite would happen) but because we understand concepts primarily through examples of people putting theories into practice. Afterall, I’ve learned the most about leadership by watching those who have successfully led me.

First, at the top of the Square we find authority, because it’s just that: a top-down approach to leadership. I would venture to say when people hear “leadership,” chances are they immediately associate it with authority. And rightly so. Leadership is definitionally authoritative. Leaders provide direction to their followers, and followers ideally listen and implement the leader’s direction. In terms of what authority looks like, I won’t try to provide a blanket approach, since it’s so contextual. Rather, this dynamic has played itself out in three different ways in my summer camp role. First, authority includes communicating an overall vision and purpose. At this particular camp, people seem to be motivated most by the higher sense of purpose to which we all assent. In this case, that means communicating the Christian values to each camper that spends a week with us. As a director, the more I talk about our vision and purpose, the more motivated our staff becomes. And motivation makes the next facet much easier. Second, authority involves directing people in what to do. Summer camp has a lot of moving parts, and the logistics can be nightmarish at times. There is not always time to sit down with people and calmly walk them through what needs to be done. Sometimes, you have to fire orders left and right in order to mobilize the staff effectively and efficiently. That’s why reminding people of the overall vision and purpose is so important; they will better understand the heart behind your orders when you, at times, come across as a drill sergeant. The third aspect is accountability and discipline. Sometimes people don’t do what they’re supposed to do, and, as an authority figure, you have to provide the necessary accountability for when that happens. Accountability is difficult for me because confrontation is not my forte. At camp, as staff (and leadership) get tired over the course of the summer, this becomes ever more important. If you’re not going to enforce the rules, why even have them? All in all, authority is probably the most straightforward and common element of the four. Nevertheless, it must remain in balance with the other three in order to be most effective.

Moving down the left side of the square, we find the friend element. This includes coming alongside of and caring for those you’re leading. Caring for staff members at camp includes supporting them emotionally and relationally as much as possible (with appropriate boundaries, of course). When the staff is emotionally and relationally whole, the camp is able to better function and carry out its overall mission and purpose. Having fun with the staff is crucial, as well. There are many opportunities for this at camp since you’re with your staff up to 16 hours per day, 5 days per week, and you’re constantly interacting with them. However, this can be tricky to navigate because you don’t want to just become “one of the boys” and lose the authoritative element. There still has to be some level of distance between me and the staff. For me this summer, that means trying to avoid the staff on weekends. Not because I don’t like them or want to hang out with them, but because it helps keep a healthy distance; I can have fun with them while working during the week but let them have their own fun on the weekends by themselves. As a people-pleaser, the friend element comes the most naturally to me. I want everyone to like me, and I tend to assume the only way that will happen is if I throw the authority hat out the window and just be their friend. However, this can be a dangerous trap to fall into. In thinking about leaders who have impacted me the most, they tend to be people who have both chewed me out and laughed with me–both held me accountable as my boss and come alongside me as a friend.

Moving across the Square to the right side, we find the coworker element. This one is tougher to define because there seems to be significant overlap with the other three elements. It is important, though, because you need to work alongside your staff. You are all pursuing a common goal, and even though you’re in charge, you’re all working together to bring the organization’s vision to life. Additionally, you gain credibility with your followers when they see you working alongside them, not just as a dictator but as someone who has a dog in the fight, too. You need to get your hands dirty. Even though you can still be technically working when giving orders or planning future weeks of camp, the staff needs to know you aren’t too important to do the same things they have to do. Plus, you should never ask someone to do something you wouldn’t be willing to do yourself. So, clean dishes and take out the trash. This one can be hard for me because I tend to err on the side of authority in a given working scenario. However, even in the past few weeks, I’ve tried to do a better job at pitching in on the grunt work with the staff. To be honest, it can be tough to invest this time because there is so much planning that has to be done for future weeks of camp, but this element is important enough to put in the extra hours and share in your staff’s exhaustion.

Finally, at the foot of the Square, we have the servant element. This is the most paradoxical. Servant-leadership is a term that gets thrown around a lot, but when you stop to think about it, it seems pretty counterintuitive. Leaders are supposed to take a top-down approach; however, sometimes taking a top-down approach requires starting at the bottom. Serving your staff breeds credibility and respect. People tend to value those who go out of their way to serve them. As a result, your staff will be more likely to listen to and respect you. Another thing to note is that serving necessitates sacrifice. If what you’re doing doesn’t cost you anything, it’s not service. This is different than the coworker element because coworker involves working alongside your staff; servanthood involves working for your staff. As a Camp Director, this can be anything from cleaning on the weekends when your staff is off to going out of your way to make sure your staff feels supported (food, encouraging notes, etc.) to plunging toilets so they don’t have to.

Now what? These four elements are important, but they aren’t the be all end all of leadership. Nor are they quite as clear-cut as this essay makes them seem. It’s hard to separate out each element and clearly distinguish between the times when you’re acting in each category. Indeed, there is a lot of overlap. I’m still learning, and this is currently where I’ve found myself on the leadership journey. In terms of practical applications, continue to put yourself in situations that will challenge you. It’s easy to stay in your comfort zone, but you won’t learn to fly unless you jump out of the nest. Additionally, check yourself and see how you’re currently balancing your Leadership Square in your current context. Reevaluate and adjust areas in which you need improvement or more emphasis. Leadership is hard. It just is. But, hopefully, as you continue to find yourself in new and exciting leadership situations, remembering these elements and how to balance them will help guide you as you work to carry out your organizations’ vision and mission.

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