The Unsigned Work Lasts Forever:
Humility in the Practice of Subordinate Leadership
Northern Arizona University
When we imagine a leader, we often think of someone at the pinnacle of the org chart, at the top of the hierarchy, with people working under them. But as we come to understand that leadership can permeate all levels of an organization, we see that leaders often have to work with people above them, too. When leaders need the power of people above them to put their plans into action, the political nature of leadership takes on paramount importance. One must persuade the “higher-ups” to back a project. This requires not only powers of negotiation and persuasion but the ability to demonstrate how the project meets the needs of one’s superiors. Kenneth Ashworth calls this aspect of leadership “subordinate leadership,” discussing it candidly in his opening remarks at the 2001 Central Texas ASPA conference.
Keywords: subordinate leadership, Kenneth Ashworth, leadership, persuasion, humility
The Practice of Subordinate Leadership
“The master doesn’t talk, he acts. When his work is done, the people say, ‘Amazing: We did it, all by ourselves!’” – Lao Tzu
Ashworth (2001) defines subordinate leadership as “leadership that comes from below rather than from the top” (p. 2). Leaders, he tells us, “find out what their followers want and need and long for, and then they satisfy those wants and needs and longings.” If we consider “followers” as people who have bought into a leaders vision and committed to making it a reality, then we need not imagine followers as only existing below a leader in a hierarchy. Often, the people a leader needs most as followers are people above her in a hierarchy. These are the people with the power and authority necessary to implement the vision in practical terms. This might take the form of their stamp of approval on a project’s budget, or stepping in to provide political clout, or standing up to adverse actions from outside the agency. Whatever the case may be, gaining the support of one’s superiors can make the difference between success and failure.
How does one gain this key support? Through powers of persuasion. But, Ashworth isn’t out to turn leaders into super salesmen with a series of tips on closing the deal. Instead, he focuses on developing the insight to show one’s superiors how the proposal satisfies their wants and needs. Speaking from years of experience, Ashworth tells us exactly want people in power want. They want to look good in the public eye. They want to take credit for popular projects. They want to exercise their power and be applauded for it. Therefore, a leader must tailor her proposals to fulfill these desires. Success lies in her ability to show the power players how they can look good by backing a project.
Dare to be Humble
“When her work is done, she forgets it. That is why it lasts forever.” – Lao Tzu
Kouzes and Posner (2012) write that “humility is the antidote to hubris” (p.341). Humility, they argue, requires accepting that one cannot achieve the vision alone. We need other people. Nowhere is a leader’s ability to swallow her pride more stringently tested than in the practice of subordinate leadership. If we are to let our superiors take credit for pushing our projects through, or even presenting our work and ideas as their own, we abandon hope of garnering public acclaim for ourselves in the process. This aspect of politics may seem unpalatable to those who need recognition for their achievements. So, Ashworth focuses not on the recognition but on the value of our projects. If we commit to the good a project can bring to the community or our agency, then it matters not whether we get credit for it. To see our ideas made into enduring realities, we focus on doing what it takes to see them through. “By letting others get credit for your ideas, you will get so much more done” (Ashworth, 2001, p.12).
Ashworth also reminds us humility includes resisting the urge to tell everyone how we made a plan come together, revealing the cleverness of our machinations to attain praise. We need to become masters of working behind the scenes, holding our cards close to our chest, and watching our plans unfold without drawing attention to ourselves. This may seem contrary to the current popular leadership concept of transparency, where everyone lays their cards on the table to freely share information. The difference is fundamentally political. Transparency is the anti-political approach to leadership. Transparency dismantles the traditional negotiation style of politics, where we all have hidden agendas and never reveal our full strength to our opponents. Transparency nurtures collaboration and innovation. But in the political sphere of getting things done in public agencies, we play a bigger game, often within organizations deeply entrenched in just that traditional style of negotiation. A policy of transparency should be, at least where our own role in political maneuvering is concerned, tempered by the wisdom of knowing when to shut up. As Ashworth says simply, “When you play for big stakes, learn to keep your mouth shut about how clever you are” (p. 11).
In the Public Sector
“Government programs, even when designed to be carried out in a direct and simple manner, eventually come to involve a large number of governmental and nongovernmental organizations and individuals” (Starling, 2001, p. 383).
In Managing the Public Sector, Starling calls dealing with a multiplicity of players “the complexity of joint action,” and it puts a fine point on Ashworth’s concept of subordinate leadership. Every one of the people and groups involved in the most basic implementation of administering a public program, even at the state and local level, has their own perspective, priorities, urgency levels, opinions, demands, and regulations. Any one of them might cause friction and conflict.
The successful subordinate leader will be the one who can show all of the players how projects meet their needs- their needs for public recognition, the admiration of their colleagues and constituents, feeling important, and looking good. The successful subordinate leader will have a master plan, a brilliant concept. And, she will abandon all hope of ever taking credit for it when it becomes reality. Instead, she creates a way for the other players to bask in the recognition, their reward for putting the resource of their power and influence to work.
Ashworth, K. (Oct. 19, 2001). Remarks on leadership to open Central Texas ASPA conference. Retrieved Jul. 30, 2013 from http://unpan1.un.org/intradoc/groups/public/documents/aspa/unpan001786.pdf
Kouzes, J., & Posner, B. (2012). The leadership challenge: How to make extraordinary things happen in organizations (5th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Mitchell, S. (1988). Tao te ching: A new English version. New York, NY: HarperCollins publishing as HarperPerennial.
Starling, G. (2011). Managing the public sector. Boston, MA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.