May 7, 2019

The Hogwarts School of Leadership

A guest post by writer, editor and extreme Harry Potter fan Melissa Turner

What would Dumbledore do?

Next time you’re stuck in a tough spot as a leader, ask yourself that question.

Odd advice?  Let me explain.

I love Harry Potter as much as the next person, probably even more.  There’s nothing like sinking into the storyline and letting it sweep you away from reality.  It’s engaging, fun and a total escape from life and work.

Or is it?

The truth is, although reading and watching Harry’s adventures is great fun, there’s also plenty we can learn from the experience, and much of it applies to professional life.  Especially the teachings of Harry’s beloved and occasionally maddening headmaster, Albus Dumbledore.  Here’s what I see when I head to Hogwarts.

Embrace the differences among us

Dumbledore spent most of his adult life fighting against everything Gellert Grindelwald, and then Lord Voldemort himself, stood for.  The bad guys of the magical world wanted wizards lording over muggles, and they had no respect for anything less than the purest of wizards.

Dumbledore, conversely, saw the value in everyone — muggle, mudblood, even questionable characters like Draco Malfoy and then-Death Eater Severus Snape when brought to his knees by Lilly Potter’s death.

The best leaders of the muggle world see value in diversity, too.  They know it makes their teams smarter and stronger, and they know they must set the example through hiring, demonstrating respect, embracing different points of view, and really walking the walk of inclusivity.

Make the tough calls when you have to

When the leaders of Hogwarts — including Dumbledore himself — agonize over whether to let Harry compete in the Triwizard Tournament, Dumbledore wisely recognizes there is only one way to understand what’s behind the mysterious events that culminate in Harry’s selection as a champion.  Harry must be allowed to compete in this dangerous, potentially deadly event.

It’s not an easy decision with a pleasant outcome, but Dumbledore knows he has to do it.

The leaders of the muggle world often spend time building consensus and examining consequences, and they may (and should) carefully navigate difficult decisions to mitigate impact.  But sometimes the painful, unpopular choice is the right one.  That’s OK.  Harry turned out OK, too.

Care about your people

Dumbledore admits at the end of the Order of the Phoenix film that he has grown to care for Harry, and perhaps that has colored some of his decision making regarding his treatment of Harry.  As such, Dumbledore has sought to shield Harry, when perhaps transparency could have kept him (and his uncle Sirius Black) safer.

In life, this can be hazardous territory.  Personal relationships might make difficult decisions hard — whether somewhat paternal like Harry and Dumbledore’s relationship, or more a friendship of equals.  Such connections can make objectivity elusive.  They might put you in danger of being unfair.  These are real concerns that you must be alert to, and fairness is paramount.

But leaders who listen and who respect and care for those on their team as whole human beings are far better positioned to inspire and motivate.  If you are a careful, responsible manager of people, truly knowing and caring about those people will never lead you very far astray.

Step up for the good of the team

In Order of the Phoenix, Harry leads a group of students in the creation of a defense club called Dumbledore’s Army.  Once discovered by Professor Dolores Umbridge, Harry and his friends are in seriously hot water, at least until Dumbledore steps in.

Dumbledore takes blame for Harry’s activities, allowing Harry to go free while he relinquishes his post as headmaster to Umbridge.  Why?

He recognizes that Hogwarts needs Harry more than him.  He recognizes he is in a far better position to navigate life beyond Hogwarts than Harry.  And he recognizes that he can protect Harry.  He falls on the sword so Harry doesn’t have to.  The sword would be far more damaging to Harry, after all.

What are the analogous experiences in real life?  Leaders who accept accountability for the failings of a team.  Leaders who recognize someone they have been nurturing is ready to step up and claim a seat at the table, perhaps even the leader’s own seat.  Leaders who captain a team but still play the game like they are no more important than anyone else.

Sometimes people just need to learn for themselves

If you made it through the final book (and if you haven’t, you should!) you know that Harry struggles mightily after Dumbledore’s death.  He questions nearly everything Dumbledore taught him — and especially why Dumbledore did not tell him more.

Dumbledore left a breadcrumb maze of tiny clues, but untangling the path took Harry to some dark and deeply frustrating places.  Why?

Having someone tell you something is not as beneficial as having them show you.  And having them show you is not as beneficial as learning it for yourself.  Sometimes people need to struggle.  They need leaders to help set them up for success, as Dumbledore does throughout The Half-Blood Prince, but they need to actually find their way themselves.  Only then does true growth occur.  And when this growth occurs, the result is a sight to behold.

At the end of the book, Harry and Voldemort circle one another in the Great Hall of Hogwarts, and Harry masterfully untangles mystery after mystery, his voice echoing through the hall as he preaches the gospel of goodness to wizards bad and good.  You can hear the influence of Albus Dumbledore in his words, but it is the lightest of touches, because Dumbledore has not remotely made Harry into a younger version of himself.  He has enabled Harry to come into his own power and become a leader in his own right.  Perhaps this is the true mark of leadership.  And it’s pure magic.

What leadership or life lessons did you take from Hogwarts?

And, most important, let’s have a little fun. What house are you in?  Please share in the comments! (Ravenclaw for me.)

Last updated May 7, 2019

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