A brief overview on leadership

When taken seriously, creative leadership does present its challenges. But those who aspire and prepare to assume leadership roles do reco...

When taken seriously, creative leadership does present its challenges. But those who aspire and prepare to assume leadership roles do recognize that it will not be easy. So, they fortify themselves to deal with the eventualities. For all leaders, this means not engaging in self-pity when times get rough. It doesn’t take long to learn that it is important to be tough and resilient and to develop a thick skin. But that toughness in team leadership should not be of the “muscle-flexing” kind. It has to be a principled toughness, based on core values, in the leadership overview.


A longstanding conundrum for leaders is whether or not good leaders show emotions. Tom Sergiovanni (1990) posited that showing outrage, for example, is an acceptable emotion for leaders. This was a very important lesson for me, because I had always heard that leaders in general, and women in particular, should never show emotions. People who showed emotions were considered to be unsuitable for leadership team development. And no one, especially a woman aspiring to leadership at the time, wanted to appear to be weak. That was certainly “career limiting,” as it was often described.

This was validated in the early years of the “women in educational visionary leadership” movement. Many of us were cautioned against showing negative emotions especially anger. Some women certainly thought that they would never move up the organizational ladder if they did not comply. Even today, in many circles, the prevailing notion is that good leaders are never emotional.

Being emotional, especially when referring to women, is still viewed as a sign of weakness. In those prior days, it was particularly difficult for women who were thought to be too emotional to move up the leadership ladder. So many struggled with how they would be viewed if they allowed any emotion to become visible. But for me, Sergiovanni provided new ways of looking at this issue at the time. He made a convincing case that outrage is totally acceptable when important values are infringed upon. This resonated with me. It was one of the most liberating insights that I have had as an educational leader. It gave me permission to express outrage and to express it openly when deeply held universal values were compromised. Of course, with such behaviors, it always hinges on the question of how one expresses outrage or other emotions that are perceived as negative.

One answer lies in the ability to engage in constructive confrontation, which I learned through guidance and counseling courses and through assertiveness training. Being able to confront constructively means that it is never acceptable to express negative feelings at the expense of others. The language used is never intended to offend to make ourselves feel good while putting others down. And although the term “confront” has such negative connotations, it is simply an invitation to others to see and appreciate the impact that their behavior is having on you or on others. Being able to confront constructively is an important interpersonal competency for all leaders.

Historically, we have seen debates in the literature on what exactly leadership development goals are and means and how it is manifested. In the 1950s and 1960s, the great-person or trait approach to leadership suggested that leaders had a finite number of identifiable qualities for example, charisma or integrity which could be used to differentiate successful from unsuccessful leaders.

Later, the study of leaders concentrated on how leaders behaved what they did, rather than how they appeared to others. This new focus gained popularity during the 1970s with the recognition that individual traits were significantly influenced by varying situations. This was described as situational leadership. However, many would say that the greatest failure of this approach was that it did not explain fully what leaders did, what they achieved, or the outcomes they forged.

A third categorization of leadership, contingency leadership, emerged in order to address the shortcomings of situational leadership. It is the view of Roueche, Baker, and Rose (1989) that among these perspectives, the notion of contingency leadership goals was the most comprehensive view of leadership at the time. They asserted, Underlying this approach is the idea that, to be effective, the leader must cause the internal functioning of the organization to be consistent with the demands of the organizational mission, technology or external environment, and to meet the needs of its various groups and members.

A major lesson that I have learned over the years is the fact that leaders must pay attention to, and seek to address, the needs of the people they lead. It is not unusual to see leaders booted out of office because they ignore people’s needs or their sincere feedback on the directions that are being taken. Leaders who are self-absorbed often interpret this as criticism rather than valuable input for improvement. It sometimes seems as if leaders forget the people who elected or chose them in the first place. Still others forget the promises they made when they were actively seeking office. At the same time, I am by no means naive. People’s needs and expectations change. Sometimes the demands are unachievable. The expectations may be inconsistent with one’s values, out of step with the times, or incompatible with the philosophy and directions of the organization.

A case in point was in the early years when we fought to bring more women into administration. This was after many years of having leadership roles dominated by men, even though the profession was predominantly female. A few bold leaders sought to reverse this trend.

A vivid memory was a situation in which I worked as a young superintendent in a community described by many as conservative. At that time, many community members fought for the right to have input into who their principal would be. In this particular district, one of the demands was that they wanted a male principal. These were the early days of the women’s movement in society in general, and in the educational arena in particular. But communities were not yet sensitized to these human rights issues. It took a lot of time to convince the members that we could not discriminate in this way. We also knew that if we sent a woman into that setting, she would have to overcome inordinate obstacles. We were able to convince the community about the superior qualifications and competence of the woman who was placed in that setting, and provided ongoing support for her transition. The following year, our criteria were carefully developed, with the caveat that it would not be appropriate to include the gender of the principal as one of the criteria for selection.

Words like “direct” and “control” in early definitions of good leadership skills reflect the authoritarianism of many leaders in the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1970s, situational leadership was the model style. In the l980s and l990s, terms such as “systems approach,” “management by objectives,” “participatory leadership,” “transformational leadership,” and “empowerment” became prevalent in the leadership literature. What we have also seen, with the progression of time, is a more humane, people-oriented, and human resources development approach to leadership and organizational improvement. Many leaders today recognize the importance of issues such as motivation in determining job satisfaction and productivity.

Admittedly, there are times when leaders must act authoritatively. Certain powers and authority are often given to leaders under our various acts, statutes, regulations, and strategic planning directions. A certain degree of accountability accompanies those responsibilities. But leaders today and in the future must have within their repertoire the leadership behaviors that engage people. They must become “enablers” creating conditions for employee motivation to thrive and to do their best work. They must be able to develop the alliances and coalitions necessary to support their organizational goals. They must be able to work effectively with people to achieve the desired goals.

My image of the leader is one who has the competencies to motivate, inspire, and develop people. These leaders model positive character attributes. They are passionate about student achievement and the capacity building of staff. It is an image of a humane individual who provides strong advocacy to make the system work for the benefit of students and community. It is an individual who has within his or her repertoire an abundance of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) and leadership communication skills that enables him or her to arrive at win-win solutions when conflict arises. It is an image of responsive, dynamic, courageous, and optimistic leadership one that eschews self-interest and is always thinking of what is in the interest of the common good.

As stated earlier, leadership requires a great deal of self-awareness, reflections on leadership, and analysis. The need for this orientation and related competencies cannot be overstated. It means that leaders must get in touch with their beliefs about human nature, because these beliefs affect profoundly one’s leadership and management style. It means engaging in constant self-assessment to identify strengths, weaknesses, and areas that need improvement. By paying attention to these requirements, leaders set themselves on a pathway to achieving the highest levels of competence and professionalism.

The nature of leadership has also changed dramatically over the years. The cries for improved outcomes, higher standards, and increased accountability have become a worldwide phenomenon. Ever-expanding demands and expectations have placed new requirements on the role of the school leader.



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Thought Leadership Zen: A brief overview on leadership
A brief overview on leadership
Thought Leadership Zen
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