Thursday, 4 October 2012

What's Your Leadship Worth?

Two iconic leaders were let go from their job this week.
One came from my wife's shortlist of life mentors.
The other came from mine.

Rosa Storelli, Principal of MLC - one of the most acclaimed girl schools in the southern hemisphere and an inspiring figurehead to her students and colleagues, was sacked after two decades of leadership. The school board is owned by itself and answers to nobody. Some of her compensation was based on a decade-old verbal agreement with a previous board. An audit didn't like it, and they sacked her to cover their own ass.

Having never felt particularly passionately about any of my school-days educators,  I was surprised to find myself saying this in her support:

My name is Miki, I have one daughter aged 3 and am married to an MLC alumni. I use this forum as the means available to me to send a message to you. I hope it reaches you.

Over the past two years, my wife has been working hard to convince me this is the school for our daughter. It was not until this storm that a realisation struck me.

On one hand, if you are not reinstated, I do not want to commit my daughter and my money to a school that operates in this way.

On the other hand, I have witnessed the fire in the eyes of my wife as, in the most intensive part of our already crazy year, she committed the time and energy to passionately stand up for what you, both as a person, a leader and a figurehead of a beloved institution, have come to mean to her.

For about a week I've been watching this, and then I came to the event two nights ago. My wife was not alone. SIX HUNDRED people rallied, passionately rallied, around you.

Those parents, patrons, alumni and colleagues, those of past, those of present and those yet to be, who fiercely closed ranks around you, those people who trust you more than any other person alive to architect something as important as their children's educational environment, this is the hallmark of a true leader.

I don't know what my wife experienced in her years at MLC, but if what you've done there invoked such a reaction, in her and in others... then bluntly put, I'll have what she is having. If you come back, I would like my daughter to get it too.
Something in me stirred. A few days later, the following (with some minor corrections from the original) randomly popped out on my behalf on Storelli's fairness forum:


The stage we are all privy to is a blackboard, and what will get written on this blackboard will likely be the single most important message that will be inscribed into the minds of children attending MLC and others.

One side to this fiasco has decreed that the blackboard will read:
FAIRNESS is meaningless.
MERIT is futile.
TREATING YOUR PEOPLE RIGHT is a hollow slogan.
ACCOUNTABILITY is to be escaped from.
The ONLY thing that matters is that you COVER YOUR ASS, and CARRY A BIG STICK.

Have no illusions.
This is the take-home message that the MLC board will have the girls carry with them. For life.
Look your children in the eyes. Look at yourself in the mirror.
Picture yourself answering to YOUR CHILDREN, when they ask what YOU did when that message was put in front of them.

I firmly believe that in such a situation, dissent is a duty, not a right.

I believe FAIRNESS is the fabric that makes us the amazing society that we are.
I believe MERIT through achievement is a cornerstone of happiness in any walk of life.
I believe ASPIRATIONAL LEADERSHIP is rarer than hens teeth, and should be lionised, not demonised.
I believe no organisation can be truly great at its game if it doesn't TREAT ITS OWN PEOPLE RIGHT.
I believe ACCOUNTABILITY is the only cure and antidote to the abuse of power.

And I believe that people whose sole contribution is shifting blame and using a BIG STICK have no bloody business running a school, lest we breed a generation of bullies who believe their way is the only way and the right way to get things done.

This goes well beyond Ms Storelli. It goes beyond the board and its chair. It goes beyond MLC.
It's about the deep, core message, that we chose to put in front of Aussie kids.
Either way it pans out, this time it will be written in blood.
It's about us going to the pain of ensuring that message is the right one, and cannot be tainted by loose cannons in the educational system with no checks and balances to keep it sane.

I believe the MLC board has collectively forgotten that they represent an EDUCATIONAL INSTITUTION.

They have forgotten that as representatives of such an institution, every single one of them is an EDUCATOR, whether they work in a classroom or not.
They stand on a platform directly tapped into the brains, the attitudes and mentality of our next generation.
Like an airline pilot that decides to play games with a plane full of people, they forgot to be careful with their choices whilst driving such a sensitive platform.

I believe that through their actions, they have violated their core duty as educators, with an intense vulgarity suggesting they do not fundamentally understand what it is they were entrusted to drive.
It's a gross violation of the fiduciary duty towards an institution that underpins any directorial role, doubly so an educational one. This will leave a scar on their career sitting on boards.

And this is potentially a cornerstone of the message we should carry to our friends, colleagues, parents, support groups, the media, potential mediators and any political person or organisation that has the courage to take a stand.

We are not the audience, watching how this will unfold.
We are the actors.
We ourselves carry an ultimate duty towards our children.
Each one of us will one day be called upon to answer to them. Where were we when this went down? Did you just sit there, or did you get up when they would teach me these things, draw a line in the sand and say 'NO'?
We, the broader Australian public, should not permit criminally negligent educators to teach our kids the wrongest possible things.
As a human being who got kicked in the head, Rosa is in a very tough spot. The way she was dismissed after a lifetime of achievement would shatter any one of us emotionally. But I'm no pessimist. I'm not an oracle either, but something tells me that five years from now, she'll be just fine. If I was her, failing reinstatement, I'd disappear for a while, re-emerge four months later with $100mn I found from investors, and use her ironclad (and now very well advertised) personal brand to jump-start her own girl school, carrying forth her vision to architect such an institution. I'd wager she could find that money.

A week apart, one of my own mentors was deposed in an equally brutal dismissal. Shai Agassi, founder and CEO of Better Place, was sacked from his role as CEO in the company he founded and spent five years building.
Not much is publicly known about the circumstance, except that Better Place is a year or so behind schedule, and nearly a billion dollars worth of investors are awaiting their returns. But what I want to mention here is the effect he had on people.

I think the word 'inspiring' doesn't do Shai justice.

Shai led two distinct groups of people.

He led a large group of people who worked with him directly - employees, business partners, investors. He was a general who cast aside a CEO opportunity in a fortune 500 company (after they invested hell knows how much in grooming him for it) and tasked himself with solving a stupidly hard problem - finding a way to take an entire country off oil. He commanded admiration (albeit perhaps not so much from everyone in that investor mob, lately) in his slow yet unstoppable advance. Better Place Australia alone had some 16,000 unsolicited resumes in 2010.

But Shai led another group. These guys. And these guys. And if you speak Hebrew, her. And them.
I know, because I'm one of them.
These guys weren't focused at what Better Place can sell them.
They were focused on the possibility horizon Better Place would prove to be in the realm of the possible.
They would smile at the hoards of "why-bother" nay-saying pessimists it would prove dead wrong.
They pay attention because each one of them is wrangling his own problem, or has a burning desire to find himself one.

These are not Agassi's troops. 
These are current and would-be generals. They raise and lead their own armies.

Shai's rallying call merely said "Our world can be fixed", and here is how: do awesome, and find a way to bloody make it viable.
Anything you think is broken, no matter how daunting or big. Ultimately, everything. 

And That, as it turns out, is an incredibly powerful proposition to those not afraid to get up, wrap their head around a challenge and try.

In a few years time, Better Place will have proved that made viable, you can do virtually infinite Awesome, in a way we've seen companies like Google or Facebook do.
Read this post again in five years and tell me I was wrong.

I have few concerns for Shai himself. He's got new ideas popping out of his ears, he's made out of Chuck Norris, and he lives in a perpetual state of seeing opportunity. Plus, he's already made more money than he can ever spend. Like Storelli, he too will be just fine.

Looking at these last two weeks, I've become ever more convinced that some people might choose to lose aspirational leaders, but aspirational leaders never, ever lose their people.

1 comment:

ButtStallion said...

Dude. Less words. Nobody has commented because nobody is reading because you're not making any kind of a clear point, and it's a shame, because some of your thoughts could be interesting. If I could figure out what your thoughts were...