September 09, 2019

Opinion: Leaders and caretakers

The national monument at Stirling honours William Wallace, a great leader of people. [Photo by Alister Sinclair and used with permission]
The passing of Bob Allen, president of the Pipers & Pipe Band Society of Ontario for a collective 10 years in the 1990s and aughts, reminded us of his ability to lead effectively.

For sure, Allen respected traditions and customs, but he was anything but a caretaker. All too often, elected and appointed leaders of piping and drumming associations assume that their first job is to ensure continuity, to protect a past, even if they know it’s imperfect. It’s easier to keep on keeping on rather than do what they believe is right for the art.

Bob Allen dealt deftly with bureaucracy – and there’s a lot of it in our game. In every association we know, there are those who steadfastly want to keep things pretty much the same as it ever was, and they’ll throw up all manner of methods to block change. Even though Bob Allen played an essentially role in running the PPBSO “like a business” (a really tedious term), by creating a board of directors, he also fostered an atmosphere of change, of trying new things.

His first reaction was to think how something smart could happen, rather than automatic knee-jerk reasons why it can’t.

We remember one meeting of judges that Bob Allen attended as both an adjudicator and ex-officio executive. At the meeting, the concept of consultative judging was discussed with enthusiasm. A program could be created in which pipe band judges could discuss their opinions at the end of the event, and have the option to adjust their rankings before handing them in.

While there was strong support for consultative judging within the group, there was also an assumption that such a measure would have to go through a year of bureaucratic discussion, voting and ratification if it was to be implemented.

The group turned to the PPBSO president for his thoughts. He simply said, “Let’s try it!” with his typical charisma.

But what about the membership and the discussion with the board? “Leave it with me. I’ll manage it,” Allen said.

And so, the initiative was implemented in a basic form, improvements worked out as challenges were discovered.

We could cite more examples, but this was one of courageous leadership that stays with us. The leader recognized that a body of experts felt it should be tried and he was okay with taking any negative criticism that might come along with attempting something new with a potential, if not likely, upside. He made a judgment call, deferring to and respecting those whose opinions he heard.

He got something done. He led.

Ultimately, a small group of members at an AGM run by a different president overturned the initiative several years later. Bureaucracy under the guise of democracy had returned. The point here is not about the merits or pitfalls of consultative band judging; it’s about leading versus caretaking, about trying new things with a bit of boldness.

Of course, we’re not advocating for unilateral decision-making. Associations are democracies, and protocol should be adhered to as appropriate. At the same time, leaders are elected to lead, and they should use their experience and courage to pick their spots to do what they think is right.

We’ve seen our share of elected and appointed officials who incorrectly assume their job is simply to ensure that the same things happen every year. No surprises. Ill-suited, ineffective leaders generally believe that doing essentially nothing, or first look for 100% approval, is the safest way to keep their role.

In fact, that philosophy can be the absolute worst approach, particularly when change is desperately needed to correct an increasingly irrelevant and eroding past.

Most of the world’s piping and drumming associations will be holding their annual general meetings in the next few months. Pipe bands, too. Their members should question whether they are electing and appointing leaders or simply sticking caretakers in seats to keep them warm.


Related article

Bob Allen, 1931-2019




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