We have talked about it. We have written about it. And for the last few weeks, we have wallowed in it.
A study out of the University of British Columbia’s Vancouver School of Economics suggests that Wilkes-Barre/Scranton is the unhappiest place in the nation. This study was a measure of people’s perceptions. The issue itself is a lesson in perception. Reading over many of the comments written about this study and the issues that have surfaced over the past several years in Luzerne County, the perception is that there is a lack of leadership in this county. I will not argue there have been individuals in high profile positions who have demonstrated toxic leadership. I certainly won’t disagree that this toxic leadership has impacted many people and their perceptions about the area.
However, the primary perception that we need to address and reframe is that there is a lack of leadership to address issues and promote positive change in our region.
Our perception, or the way we see the world, is based on our experiences. For example, research suggests that first-born children are more likely to be natural leaders than their siblings. Middle children are more likely to be peacemakers. These tendencies are not predetermined at birth but are determined by the experiences we have growing up. If our experiences influence the way we perceive a particular issue, our perceptions ultimately dictate the way we think about that issue. In an organization, if you can better understand the perceptions of your employees and customers, you can better influence the way they think and act, ultimately leading to habits, which can build an extraordinary company culture.
It is clear that our thoughts and actions as a community are being heavily influenced by three main misperceptions about leadership. These misperceptions are influencing the way we think about leadership and the way we act as leaders in our community. The first misperception is the belief that the examples we have of leaders are toxic and bad. Secondly, and maybe most concerning to me as someone who studies and teaches about the subject of leadership, is the misperception that leadership only exists in high profile positions (eg. mayor, council, CEO, college president) and, in turn, these individuals are the only ones who can do something about these issues. Finally, there is the misperception that “they” are failing as leaders and, in turn, “we” are suffering the consequences. I believe if we address these misperceptions, reframe the way we think about leadership and act as leaders ourselves, we can influence our community.
This first misperception suggests we only have negative or toxic examples of leaders. The Times Leader article, Study: We’re No.1…in Gloom, cited examples of top executives of the Luzerne County Transportation Authority being accused of conspiring to falsely inflate numbers and the recent scandal where two former county commissioners were sent to jail for corruption. Our negative views of leadership are a product of the language we use and the stories we tell, which ultimately influence our reality. If we continue to highlight and discuss toxic leadership as the principle type of leadership in this area, then we are most likely going to believe this falsehood. However, continuing to highlight these incidents as examples of leadership does a real disservice to thousands of individuals in Northeastern Pennsylvania that — along with their organizations, places of worship, families, and neighbors — take on leadership roles to provide much needed service to our community. For example, organizations like Mohegan Sun or First National Community Bank emphasize leadership competencies and skills in their organizations’ formalized leadership development training programs. They develop leadership competencies and use these skills to work with organizations like the Autism Coalition of Luzerne County, the Boy Scouts, Head Start, and Special Spaces NEPA, just to name a few. Such examples of leadership are all around us.
The second misperception about leadership is that it can only be found in high profile leadership positions. These traditional views of positional leadership are antiquated. The recent study and practice of leadership suggests that leadership is a process between two or more individuals working toward a goal or goals in a particular context. Sure, this could apply to the mayor working with the college presidents to secure a safer downtown. However, it also means that you and I play a significant role in advancing leadership in this area.
This brings me to the final misperception of leadership. The greatest trick apathy ever played was to make us believe “we” are different than “them.” There is no “them” and “us.” These are only our issues and our perceptions. We are them and they are us. What the “they” does is allow us to skip out on our responsibility to be leaders. It allows us to keep our hands clean while keeping our egos in check.
With that said, no substantial change can come to this community without leadership from each of us. Everyone is part of this community. Everyone has the opportunity to be a leader and the responsibility to become a better leader. We did not fail us. We are just getting started and this study about our perceptions is just the wakeup call we needed to take on our roles as leaders.
Dr. Matthew Sowcik is an assistant professor at Wilkes University’s Sidhu School of Business and Leadership.