Leadership: indicatives vs imperatives

As a qualified administrator, I have a vested interested in believing that my formal qualification indicates that I am a leader, and moreover, that I deserve to be. Not so.

While studying leadership at Johns Hopkins, the literature suggested over and over that leaders were more born than made, and coming to believe this more and more myself, I guess I should have dropped out.  Irony aside, I now interpret everything I read about leadership differently.  Whether reading about authentic leaders or servant leaders, we should see lists of characteristics as indicative (these characteristics describe the type of leader), not imperative (do these things and you will be that type of leader).

This isn’t to say that there is no room for development, but there are very real boundaries. For example, collaboration and transparency can be practiced.  Other traits of successful leadership such as candor (Murphy, 2007) are difficult to practice, because they are simply a personality trait.

Thus, leaders can be more effective by focusing on personal growth rather than blindly seeking professional growth. According to Evans (2007), “One of the greatest flaws in style-based leadership theories is the assumption that one might somehow acquire and apply only the strengths of each particular style, that one might become a composite of stylistic virtues” (p. 151). Some know all the right things and might come across as fantastic leaders in an interview, but they still lack a je ne sais quoi when it comes to practice. Evans (2007) insists that the behaviors of administrators are determined by who they were before going to graduate school and not by what they learned while there. Thus, it seems that administrators should focus more on their own personal development. To illustrate this point, Covey’s (1991) list of leader characteristics almost entirely consists of traits that most would view as innate qualities (radiate positive energy, believe in other people, see life as an adventure, etc.). These are not qualities that one can simply decide to have. We can make efforts to embrace a characteristic we already have in some measure, but we can’t conjure it from nowhere just because we know that it will help us to be a better leader. Thus, the continuing gap between theory and practice – knowing what to do isn’t the same as being able to do it (Lieberman et al, 2007).

Real leaders: born or made?

Real leaders: born or made?

What do you think? Born or made?


Parts of this post were adapted from essays written in 2011.

Covey, S. (1991) Principle-Centered Leadership. Fireside-Simon & Schuster

Evans, R. (2007) The authentic leader. In M. Fullan (Ed.), The Jossey-Bass reader on educational leadership (pp. 135-157). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. (Reprinted from The human side of school change, 1992).

Lieberman, A., Saxl, E. R., Miles, M. B. (2007) Teacher Leadership: Ideology and Practice. In M. Fullan (Ed.), The Jossey-Bass reader on educational leadership (pp. 403-420).

Murphy, J. (2007) The unheroic side of leadership. In M. Fullan (Ed.), The Jossey­Bass reader on educational leadership (pp. 51‐62). San Francisco: Jossey‐Bass. (Reprinted from Phi Delta Kappan, May 1968 pp. 654‐659, by Jerome Murphy, 1968).