What leadership looks like

Scott McLeod of the Dangerously Irrelevant blog has declared today, July 30, 2010 as Leadership Day 2010. He’s been doing this for three years now, and each year I’ve participated with a post.

  • 2007 – Leaders of the Future where I focused on developing the leader in every learner.
  • 2008 – Just Do It where I urged administrators to stop waiting for the district reorg or the next version of Windows or that bandwidth you were promised 3 years ago and get moving. Listen to kids, don’t listen the teachers who can’t seem to manage an email account, damn the torpedos and full steam ahead.
  • 2009 – Every day is leadership day in which I wrote about the connection between “agency” (meaning true choice) and leadership. Leadership is only meaningful when people have an actual choice to follow or not follow. Leadership is inextricably bound to free will, in the same way democracy is. In schools, this must happen every day, at every level of participation.

This year, as I read my past posts, I saw a trend. I started with students as leaders, moved on to finding ways to move forward despite obstacles, and last year, opened that theme up to all levels of leadership. I’ve consistently gotten broader and bigger with my thoughts about leadership.

But today it occurs to me that perhaps I’ve broadened the topic to such an extent that it’s nearly impossible to actually DO anything about it. If leadership is a good thing, we must be able to say what to do to achieve it. Right? Shouldn’t we be able to answer the questions – What does it look like? How do you do it? What conditions does it require? It’s not fair to say that we know it when we see it. It’s not useful to say that leadership success is simply success in leadership.

People talk about leaders all the time. We see models of leadership on TV, at our workplace, read stories about them, find them in history and self-help books. But what can we learn from them? How can people call both Ghandi and Donald Trump great leaders? (Can you imagine Ghandi shouting “You’re fired!” at anyone?) Why does it work equally well for one sports coach to throw stuff at players and call them names, while the coach at some equally award-winning team speaks softly and treats players with respect? How can a principal who carries a whistle and has a “convincing paddle” on his wall be a great leader in the same world as the principal across town who is grandmotherly and nurturing?

And yet, we see this paradox every day. “What works” is variable to an almost maddening degree.

  • Perhaps it’s that their personal style works for them – is leadership simply being true to yourself?
  • Perhaps they just found the right set of followers – is leadership then dependent on followership?
  • Perhaps it’s that they just have a consistent vision – is leadership just making clear statements and following through on expectations?
  • And if these differences don’t matter – then how can we ever figure out what a successful leader “does?”

But three years into my leadership musings, I find myself with more questions than answers, wanting to dive down into the individuality of leadership. Expanding the definition, it seems, means less understanding and potentially losing the hope of grasping it.

I invite you to read the other posts made on the subject of Leadership Day and perhaps write your own. What does leadership look like to you?


6 Replies to “What leadership looks like”

  1. My favorite definition of a leader is, essentially, whomever the attention is on. I know, that is possibly the broadest definition, but it makes sense when you think about it.

    Loud people, unusually silent people who only speak when necessary, flashy dressers, etc. All those people can be leaders because they merely draw attention which allows them to influence everyone else by their actions- granted, how long they maintain the position of being a leader and the degree of influence they have is dictated by other factors…

    The idea of leadership is a bit wacky to me anyway. It is just another example
    of unhealthy power relationships. David John Farmer wrote an excellent book called “To Kill the King”- it is INCREDIBLY esoteric, but a good read for those of us who are interested in the idea of leadership in governance and administration.

  2. Like you, I’m struggling with more and more questions. Reflecting a bit on my musings about leadership, I got stuck on this question: are good leaders teaching and mentoring future leaders?

    This raises all sorts of topics including my definition of “good”. With that said, my lens is on administrators as leaders and who is teaching/mentoring/growing these future administrators. By many accounts, we are to believe that there are few good administrators out there and professors in ed leadership programs are hit or miss, so what does that leave?

  3. I know that the term, natural-born leader, is very cliche, but I think that all of the great leaders in history were naturally formed. That means that their upbringing, their surroundings, their struggles, and their success all shaped who they became as leaders.

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