Habari Gani: When Leaders are Uncoachable

Written by
Autumn A. Arnett

Aug 9, 2022

Aug 9, 2022 • by Autumn A. Arnett

One of the best pieces of leadership advice I’ve ever gotten was from Xavier University of Louisiana president emeritus Dr. Norman Francis on the eve of his retirement.

How does one achieve 47 years in any position, let alone 47 successful years, I’d asked him at the time. 

“It’s simple,” he said. “You hire smart people, empower them to lead in their areas of expertise, and get out of their way.”

That advice has carried me across several management positions, and even in running my own household and managing my children.

Lessons for leaders

Most leaders across sectors, but particularly in higher education, will tell you they spend a lot of time and expend a lot of consideration to hire people who are not only the best qualified for their jobs, but whom they believe will be the best fit. 

So why is it so hard for leaders to do as Dr. Francis suggested years ago and hire smart people, then get out of their way?

One major reason for this is ego. When a leader is not truly ready to let go of all of the reins of a department or organization, because that person is used to being the one people recognize, it can be difficult for staff members to manage up. Regardless of how much a person says she or he wants employees who can manage up, if the leader believes his or her way is truly best, then that person will have a hard time relying on the expertise of others.

But what happens when a leader is uncoachable? How does that impact the culture of the institution, and more importantly, the bottom line? 

Unpacking toxic positivity

Recently, I was having a conversation with a colleague about the idea of toxic positivity. As we grappled with the question of how one could call something toxic when everyone around them was so positive and chipper, it occurred to us that if the positivity and upbeat tone were hiding dysfunction, a lack of structure, and a lack of cohesion among team members, then the environment is every bit as toxic as environments where there’s constant arguing and in-fighting. A lack of conflict does not always equal the presence of comfort; sometimes it just means that people are uncomfortable confronting difficult questions. 

Except those difficult questions have to be addressed in order for an organization to move forward in a way that best serves the community as a whole. 

I once read a study about the cultural differences in the ways people approach conflict, and how it contributes to the idea of “angry Black woman” syndrome — this notion that if one wants to address conflict head-on rather than exist in a state of toxic positivity, that she is the issue not the thing she is actually trying to address.

And it often leads to a state of cognitive dissonance for the women — often women of color — who are intent on raising awareness of the issues at hand, because they are being gaslit in an attempt to make them believe that everything around them is fine.

Sometimes, though, it’s not fine. Often, within institutions and organizations, there are cultural issues that exist beneath the surface, cloaked under “this is how we’ve always done it,” or worse, “I read this in a leadership book,” that are very threatening to the viability of the organization. And if those things go unaddressed, they will be damning to the institution’s ability to meet not just its diversity goals, but goals around supporting students, faculty, and staff more broadly.

Sometimes, someone’s got to tell the emperor he’s got on no clothes. The question is whether the emperor is prepared to listen and address the issue, or whether he’s leaning on his own expertise and refusing to accept coaching.

Broad application

I always feel like I learn my greatest lessons in leadership and management from my children, and this week has been no exception. The other day I dropped my son off at his new middle school for orientation.

And for the first time, I felt a twinge of “my baby’s not ready for middle school” in my chest. Technically, it’s his second year of middle school, but we were abroad last school year, and sixth grade in Costa Rica is the last grade of lower school (as it should be, in my opinion. I was promoted from elementary school after 6th grade, and if you ask me — though no one did — sixth graders are not ready to go to junior high/middle school. They’re still babies.). 

Anyway, the feeling was new for me. I gave no pause when I dropped either of my children off for their first days of preschool or kindergarten. I think I’ll manage when I take my daughter in for high school orientation later this week. But something in me is really apprehensive about the type of year my sweet, people-pleasing 11-year-old will have this year.
And as I drove back home, I had to interrogate the feelings I was having.

I’ve raised my children equipped with all of the tools they need for their current stages of life. They’re brilliant, strong critical thinkers, resilient, resourceful, witty, charismatic. I like them — and not just because they’re my children — and other people like them too. Alexander has everything he needs to make this a great year, and I realized I need to get out of his way and let him shine.