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March 1, 2022
Vol. 79
No. 6

Relevant Read / Constellations of Leadership

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      The Power of Giving Away Power: How the Best Leaders Learn to Let Go
      by Matthew Barzun (Optimism Press, 2021).
      This much-praised book by Matthew Barzun—a former tech entrepreneur, Obama campaign operative, and U.S. ambassador—is not strictly about education. But it highlights an important message for school and district leaders in the current climate: In the face of complex organizational challenges, shared leadership and genuine inclusivity are often more constructive and fruitful than hierarchical control and streamlined decision making.
      Barzun says that leaders naturally gravitate toward the latter tendencies, which fall under what he calls the "pyramid mindset." This mindset prizes order, uniformity, certainty, and consolidated power. These qualities can be effective up to a point, but they can also stifle creativity and flexibility and depersonalize work environments. At worst, they extol process over purpose—and people.
      Barzun contrasts the pyramid mindset of leadership with the "constellation mindset," which is far rarer but, he argues, far more greatly needed in organizations today. As he describes it, the constellation mindset centrally entails sharing power and problem solving within peer-to-peer networks or groups. It prioritizes decentralization, interdependence, diversity, and co-creation. It favors possibility and "fruitful friction" over-predictability and control.
      To illustrate, Barzun traces the constellation mindset through the philosophies of a range of organizations, including Wikipedia, Alcoholics Anonymous, and the Obama presidential campaigns. He also highlights the work of idiosyncratic organizational thinkers such as Mary Parker Follett, John Gilbert Winant, and Jane Jacobs. More personally, Barzun writes of the evolving influence of the "power-with" mentality on his own career—including in his dramatic final break, as U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom, with the "muscular culture" of leadership that values "posturing rather than connecting."
      He challenges other leaders to make the same difficult leap—"to face yourself and expose your imperfections to others and seek to make something new with them and through them."

      Anthony Rebora is the editor in chief of Educational Leadership.

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