Search on Twitter or in a bookstore and you’ll find a plethora of material on the leadership phenomenon. According to a study cited in Joshua Rothman‘s piece in the New Yorker, Americans spend $14 billion per annum on leadership training seminars. This is a growth industry on steroids and unfortunately, like regular use of steroids, most of it is deleterious.
I recently came across a tweet by the well known CEO of ‘Lead from Within’, Lolly Daskal on the seven elements of leadership. These leadership traits come from a sound base but they aren’t new. Trait theory has been around for more than a century and is at the forefront of the great man theory of leadership. It basically says that men (not usually women) are either born with the characteristics to be a leader or not. So if you don’t have these inherent personality traits, then you can’t be a leader.
On the other side, process theory suggests that leadership is something that can be learned. According to Rothman, the process model acknowledges that ‘being a leader’ is not someone you are, it’s something you do.
Over the past fifty years, new theories have been advanced that have given rise to a kaleidoscope of views on leadership and what makes a good leader. Authors have studied ‘charismatic’ leaders in an attempt to offer the rest of us a blueprint to effective leadership. Most material is really a variation of the same theme.
I am not so sure that you can easily deconstruct or distill leadership into its component parts, which is my issue with the “seven elements of leadership”. Leadership is never straightforward and yet we are often presented with an idealised view of it. In his piece, Rothman refers to Jeffrey Pfeffer’s book Leadership BS in which Pfeffer argues that the five universal leadership traits commonly espoused are often ignored by real-world leaders.
The argument is that there is a difference between being a leader and doing leadership. Rather than linking leadership to a set of traits, I prefer to think of leadership as the art of leading in terms of seven norms:
- Being open to learning
- Willingness to exchange ideas
- Being reflective
- Building a shared purpose
- Enabling shared responsibility
- Being outcomes-focused
- Celebrating success
It is my experience it’s what people do that attracts followers and perhaps the only way to explain the outliers who have passed as great leaders in history. I recently asked our new school leaders who they admired most. The usual suspects like Mandela, Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa were named. Not one mentioned a colleague principal, teacher or staff member.
It seems to me that we interact with outstanding leaders every day but we often don’t recognise them. These people should be our models. As Mark Twain wrote: “Thunder is good, thunder is impressive, but it is lightning that does the work.” Let’s look for the lightning rods who are doing great work in and for our schools.