Welcome! Cooperative and Authentic Leadership | Stuart Grauer | 16 Min Read

July 8, 2024

In 1876, American baseball players did not use gloves and the pitcher stood in a box 45 feet from the batter, not today’s 60 feet. Original basketball games used peach baskets. Those were “the rules of the game.” 

Games are the mother of organization. So, imagine if you had a game going with some friends and someone showed up, claimed to be the captain, and not only played by 1876 rules, but seemed disturbed if you did not naturally go along with those rules. Something like that can happen in today’s boardrooms and schools, marriages, and organizations of all kinds. This story will illustrate what that disconnect can look and feel like for leaders and followers … and what to do about that.

The Weather 

A head of school I know received the following memo from a board member. The memo concerns a project the head had created and spearheaded, but that some board members determined they should take over by virtue of their position and rank:

“As to decision making, since there are 3 of us, I am working with the majority rules. In this case, as the chair and I both decided on the next steps, there was no need to ask you. This is how I gave direction and will continue to give direction on decisions—Unless I hear differently from the chair:  he has the ultimate say over all decisions if he so chooses.”

The head who received this memo was cut out, and stunned. The decision at hand seemed small—the project’s tactical execution was clearly assigned to him and within his expected duties. Where did such a decision-making schema originate in his school’s governance? 

When I heard about this memo I thought, “Wow! Poor head! Could a leader ever face that at The Grauer School?” Here was the head of a creative school with a focus on entrepreneurship and collaboration—but this was an old-time power play, foreign to the school’s culture or corporate bylaws. 

These disturbances happen regularly, they always have and will. You might as well get angry at a thunderstorm, or at some pesky little discursive thought that you think threatens your peace of mind. But what could he do? 

Maybe he could welcome the memo, go straight into the weather. 

Leading and Managing

Leading and managing in organizational life can derive from a wide spectrum of perspectives, held by different kinds of minds.  Each “kind” lives inside their own “weather system:” conservative, authority-driven, systems managers live in one system. Progressive, free-thinking, and empathic thinkers live in a whole other world, with a different set of motives; they function differently in organizations, and they ultimately create very different kinds of organizations. 

So, it is not really surprising that that board member’s decision-making quote is loaded with the presumption of managerial, authority-driven bureaucracy.  Those who read that memo and have backgrounds in organizational behavior and development may recognize that the approach essentially negated the existence of collaborative leadership as an operating principle, at least on that project. 

As a leadership scholar of several decades, I was quick to support that head. We start such support by recalling a basic dichotomy:  management versus leadership. “The trick.” I reminded that head, “is to fully grasp the reality of both, and to listen. That’s the starting place.” We need management and leadership, both. But when?


Let’s break it down simply:  Management typically refers to the activities that maintain an organization’s stability and efficiency. Such maintenance can entail a “bureaucratic mindset” by focusing on controls, adherence to established protocols, and typically relying upon a chain of command. These management practices, popularized by theorists such as Fredrick Taylor, born back when they still used a peach basket for shooting hoops, and Max Weber in the early 20th century. Their methods took root in a time when industries were scaling rapidly and sought to maximize productivity through tight control over labor and processes. They wanted a standardized product.

In boardrooms, tight, managerial approaches tend to jibe with practices outlined in the famous “Robert’s Rules of Order,” a peach basket-era, comprehensive, 1876 guidebook for parliamentary procedure written by an engineer and brigadier general of the U.S. Army. Robert was struggling to conduct his meetings in an orderly fashion. His book replaced complex and admittedly, sometimes frustrating human relationships with a labyrinth of if-then scenarios, making a rule for almost every conceivable situation that might arise during a meeting. It was perfect for many engineers. This is, of course, the schema of the writer of the memo above.

There is some crossover on a finance committee, where management is done by board members, but otherwise governance simply has to be leadership, not management of school operations. Board members are there to oversee operations, not manage them! Realistically, though, most people who get on boards have more experience and familiarity with management than leadership: a built-in conundrum.

Why, you might wonder, might someone adopt a bureaucratic mindset or wish to exert controls or high structure on a creative, high functioning school? Well, many among us were brought up or schooled in such environments. There are various family, educational, cultural, and other factorsincluding fear of uncertainty. And why wouldn’t people want to simplify and control things in the sometimes-baffling course of human events? 

The case of Henry Martyn Robert’s systematic, detailed, and structured approach reflects an “engineering mindset,” resonating with those who value closed systems which eliminate ambiguity. In Robert’s rules, each scenario can be visualized through charts and graphs. 

One problem is that, like in chess, those labyrinthine rules can be gamed by those who wish to specialize in “the rules of the game.” Not everyone is an engineer.

Of course, Robert’s Rules of Order has been revised since the days when basketball hoops were peach baskets. On the one hand. On the other hand, despite its early and famous framework for governance, and despite enabling some players to take control, no contemporary leadership school would endorse Roberts. Even the current version largely ignores the human, adaptive concepts that are the essence of leadership, such as empathic listening and creativity. The high-ranking people can just “pull rank.” Do you want your child’s school to run that way?

As a way of attempting to control what is emerging, managers or high ranking board members can up the rules and regulations, increase risk management procedures, centralize decision-making (to themselves), control payment allocations, establish more training benchmarks, or simply slow or disregard communications of “subordinates.” These approaches can provide control and eliminate messy human empowerment. But what else can they do?

On a broader level, bureaucratic management can also stifle culture. By this I mean it can stifle the workers’ sense of play, empowerment, ownership, and peace. It can inhibit the organization’s ability to capitalize on the spontaneity and innovation that emergent situations and creative leaders can bring. The results can include high compliance but also a less engaged, less mutually supportive and resilient, less loyal, less passionate, and too-often more toxic workplace. Used indiscriminately, bureaucratic managers can leave you feeling like that head must have felt after reading a memo like that.

1978 and 1991: leadership

Alternatively, creating loyal, committed teams is a powerful, natural phenomenon today’s evolved leaders study and practice in developing high performing, adaptive organizations. In 1978, James MacGregor Burns ignited the field with his book, Leadership, and leadership theory and practice boomed in the 1970s, 80s, and onward. Various “schools of thought” on leadership have evolved:

Transformational Leadership was the founding leadership principle of The Grauer School, tremendously inspired by the late Joseph C. Rost’s work and book Leadership for the Twenty-First Century, completed in 1991, our own school’s founding year. Rost had been my dear mentor and doctoral advisor at the University of San Diego School of Leadership and The Grauer School would have been impossible without him. “Transformational” leaders are seen as change agents who motivate and inspire followers to not only perform as expected but to exceed expectations by internalizing (or even advancing) the leader’s vision as their own.  Hierarchical and bureaucratic managers of course do not attempt or think much about this, nor did Robert.

Leadership and character development are central to our school’s philosophy, with an emphasis on nurturing compassionate, ethical, and responsible leader-follower relationships. These relationships, when working as envisioned, are not just working on our board. They are occurring at all levels:  teacher-student, administration-faculty and staff, board chair-whole board, head of school-almost all others, school leaders-community leaders. This collaborative, relationship-based style contrasts sharply with the traditional management focus on authority-based supervision, assigned roles, and fixed organizational goals. Amazingly, in this leadership model, leaders and followers can even shift roles, back and forth: collaborative leadership. Loyalty and trust spiral upwards.

Transformational leadership might not sound as simple or replicable as bureaucracy. From my perspective, I believe many people do not believe it even exists. Nonetheless, there are now hundreds if not thousands of books written on it. I’m at my best when I am in the thick of a good one, like talking with a wise elder. Right now, it’s Blueprint, by Christakis, which has some great sections on leadership. (True confessions: I am also in the thick of Pete the CatGet to Bed, along with my 10-month-old grandson, Noah.)

Continually, The Grauer School (and I) have embraced inspiring, emerging forms of leadership as the field and the school have grown in tandem. Authentic Leadership, in theory and practice, for instance, was “natural” for The Grauer School as it evolved in the 2000’s opening decade of the millennium. This school of leadership emphasizes the genuineness of leaders who act in accordance with their deeply held, shared values, rather than adopting a persona that they believe a leader is “supposed” to exhibit by virtue of position or title. I have found this a wonderful challenge: The relationships and decisions of the authentic leader have to be tied back to their honest state of mind and energy. No hiding behind ranks, no power politics. You are either persuasive and trusted, or not. No abiding by memos like the one received by that head of school. 

(All leaders do have to note, unfortunately, that the use of force and rank could be necessary in circumstances of high internal threat. Leadership, like power, is simply not called for in every situation, and it does not negate the use of good management.)

Authentic leaders tend to resist organizational charts, which seem reductionist and false when you are enabling fluid relationships where everyone can feel empowered and responsible to the whole. To me, our organization has always been represented by a force field more than a 2-dimensional chart. I have not always been successful in conveying this to everyone, and my forcefield concept has not been adopted by our board! However, it works for me. My guess is that Robert would have found it esoteric at best.

Organizations driven by cooperative and authentic leadership tend to have mild hierarchies (versus strict hierarchies): instead of definitive power or set rank, leaders work on creating influencerelationships that are always forming and renewing. The leaders prevail by persuasion, collaboration, and inspiration—and by perseverance. The result can be more supportive, connected workplaces where there are more friendships and loyalty. People have higher self-esteem. I personally believe they are less likely to worry about work-life balance, and this might make a wonderful conversation. They are more likely to see their fates and fortunes as shared[1]JM Rabbie and HFM Lodewijkx, “Conflict and Aggression: An individual-Group Continuum,” Advances in Group Processes 11 (1994): 139-174 and as a part of their personal life.

Disruption and Small Schools

Transformational, adaptive, and other emerging forms of leadership have proven to be particularly effective and fascinating in the smaller organizations that I focus on—not that they aren’t impactful in larger ones. At smaller, more personal scales, we have the great chance to develop egalitarian consensus and benevolent, earned, shared authority. The smaller organization can become an amazing leadership lab, including at times of external challenge. 

Perhaps the greatest test of leadership is when organizations experience challenge and undesirable disruption. At those times, talented people feel constrained and frustrated in waiting around for orders to do what is obvious to them. They feel like leaders and they feel a calling. They need to act. That’s where those high trust relationships really pay off. 

Alternatively, when workers feel subordinate and controlled, they hesitate in expressing that calling. Unnecessary complexity, inefficient bureaucracy, hesitancy, accidents, and arguments are more likely to become normal. 

In our own school’s history, we have faced many milestones and epochal challenges. Collaborative leadership has made all the difference in maintaining a loyal team, which is active with shared devotion to our cause. The top leader’s role is to maintain the solidarity and intrinsic sense of shared cause beyond what we believe is possible in more formal institutions with greater hierarchies.  

Of course, it can always happen that some individual can prefer the lack of ambiguity, and the predictability of the more systematic organization. But I do not believe those to be among the high performers or leaders. Let’s debate this!


I think the small organization leader must have an underlying belief in the essential goodness of nature and of everyone on the team, hence less need for control. In this different weather system, the leader might re-state the initial, bureaucratic memo that stimulated this column. Here is the letter that head could had received, this time from a leader:   

“In our collaborative decision-making, every voice matters, and while we highly regard the chair’s guidance and perhaps even legal authority, our choices are shaped together, reflecting our shared vision.” 

Challenges such as ecological crisis, systemic racism, technological disruption, and top-heavy if not hostile bureaucracy may call for authentic leadership where the stakes are high, as are the oppositional or disruptive forces being faced. Likewise, when we sense emergent possibilities, unthought of previously and outside of our assigned responsibilities, we will need a leader—or to be one ourselves.

The transactional manager and bureaucrat represented by the opening quote has a tendency of making many who wish to work on those challenges feel voiceless and powerless when we need them most—this is of course what that head of school I know was worried about, and feeling. At that point, he was second-string on the team. And he knew it.


Some who get into management and governance positions believe they need to have a new perspective and “wear another hat.” Supposedly, in that hat, they can drop their authentic, human relationships and make decisions based upon the strict, fiduciary needs they see on spreadsheets or contracts. Bureaucratic managers will never tire of finding reasons why they need to control things rather than empowering or trusting others. They almost always claim they are just doing their duty. When those in power promote a life of tit for tat exchanges dictated by formal institutions, ever-more detailed contracts, and bureaucracy, those on shop floors and faculties can begin to feel anonymous if not demoralized. They feel a loss of culture, too—and there is not a single thing more precious in an organization. Leadership is, after all, the creation and advancement of a mutually aspirational culture.

In times of change and opportunity when we need it most, those managers may not only be confused or frustrated by authentic leadership—that is when they may deny its very existence. What’s worse, great challenges tempt the power-oriented manager to the use of force.


When two (or more) people have fundamental differences between them and nobody is talking about those differences, the results can be frustrating and discordant, if not heartbreaking.  Here are some things that are opposite from one another yet often treated as though they are the same:

  • Leader — Manager
  • Strategy — Tactics
  • Organizational behaviors and callings — Job titles
  • Innovation — Improvement
  • Influence — Assigned authority
  • Paradox — Conflict

I tried to remind that head of school that this is all a permanent duality: there will be no end to our efforts to balance control with empowerment, or management with leadership. Even in the face of disturbance or short-term decision-making, we can keep an authentic leadership perspective alive by embracing the conflict. 

Yes, we can embrace conflict, though it can take some conscious mind shifting. Since conflict is always possible, and is always around, it’s just another paradox for us to identify. Paradox and conflict almost always show up as a dichotomy, for the choosing: they are both always available. As soon as you accept the paradox, the conflict goes away.  

The manager tends to invite us-them conflict inside the organization. Bureaucratic action and management take skill in the short run. But they are not leadership. Nor are they the answer to the despair, loneliness, and exhaustion we see in an alarming number of places around the world. The answer lies in ongoing leadership: raising our level of connection and moral aspiration together.

Mind: we never want to lose sight of either. The Grauer School was developed quite specifically as a way to live a life without many conventional, bureaucratic constraints: for kids and teachers alike. We need good managers, but it’s also true that bureaucracy is in essence a form of control that small schools exist to avoid. 

Leadership at its best is liberation.  In the end, though, leadership-management is not a strict dichotomy, it’s more like a sliding scale where we are finding the right balance for our unique organization and brand. Finding that magic balance is the work of committed masters and maintaining it takes enormous perseverance, maniacal work ethic and attention to detail, and persuasiveness.

Efficient, bureaucratic controls and power plays infiltrating the creative, flexible organization, does not have to stop committed, authentic leadership; it only delays or disrupts it. In the end, it can even become a common threat that unites us behind our larger purposes: freedom. 

We need leaders who can see the harm being done through domination practices that oppress the human spirit, and who never give up their faith that people can be generous and creative through mutual empowerment—that’s much more important than almost all the managerial decisions that are made. We need leaders who never give up efforts to find meaningful dialog that serves our highest possible values and creativity.

There are many other weather systems people live in, not just management versus leadership. Understanding our own presumptions, our weather, and those of others opens up the world of understanding between ourselves and those who seem to live in different ecosystems.

“How is your relationship with that board member?” I queried that head of school.

“Actually, good,” he responded.

“Well then, you have what you need to keep trying.”


Ready or not, there is something beyond what organization or team we are on, something that connects all of us as human beings. I hope this is what leadership is the study of.

Asking people about their understanding of leadership is the number one, top recommended approach recommended by NAIS for finding new board members and it is the essential ingredient in all sustaining companies. It can work as we gather for play sports, or convening in the board or classroom. I have spent 40 years in the constant study and practice of leadership so, though I still feel like a beginner sometimes, I love the chance to share and to learn more. From time to time, the disturbance comes, and then the good manager may try to control it, pull out the protocol, and plot a way. Just then the leader is more liable to look the disturbance in the eye, study it, go out into that weather and get drenched, and say: 


PS:  If you have a passion for your school’s mission, that school may need you on their board.

You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Stuart Grauer for Intrepid Ed News.


1 JM Rabbie and HFM Lodewijkx, “Conflict and Aggression: An individual-Group Continuum,” Advances in Group Processes 11 (1994): 139-174

Stuart Grauer, Ed.D.

Stuart Grauer, Ed.D., Founder and Head of School Emeritus of The Grauer School (https://www.grauerschool.com/campus-life/stuarts-page) (Encinitas, California) is considered one of the nation’s top authorities on small schools and expeditionary education. He founded the Small Schools Coalition (Coalition (https://smallschoolscoalition.org/) in 2011 in support of small school leaders. Stuart has been called “America’s foremost educational storyteller.” This year marks Stuart’s 50th in secondary education. He publishes, accredits, and consults widely. His Book: “Original Instructions for Leaders of Small Schools and Causes” is due out in 2025. Contact Stuart at [email protected].

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