Leadership is Not Always the Solution
By Steve Gruenert
Associate Professor and Department Chairperson
Eric Jackson II
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University
Too often we hear pundits in K-12 education using leadership as the solution to any problem. “With strong leadership anything can be accomplished!” they proclaim. The problem with this statement is that when something fails, it has become fashionable to blame leadership and move on, when other factors regarding the success or failure of schools are well in play.
The Merriam Webster dictionary defines leadership (noun) a few different ways: The position of leading a group, organization, etc.; the time when a person leads; and/or when one has the power or ability to lead.
Leadership under all three definitions might only be good for leadership. In schools, for example, it can only do so much. To those who decry that leadership has the ability to “fix” K-12 education, we offer a few thoughts regarding potentially, a more accurate depiction of the breadth and depth of leadership’s influence.
Leadership does not necessarily fix bad teaching. It cannot necessarily improve one’s learning, as leadership is not necessarily efficacious cross-contextually. We cannot naturally apply leadership skills to other domains in our life and guarantee a high level of success; in fact, we may make things worse. Think of the fact that if leadership is the act of getting others to do something they would not have done otherwise, then when sitting around with friends, the use of leadership would be more akin to manipulation. As leadership requires followers, wouldn’t we be subordinating our spouse or partner when we tried to lead in that context?
We can all remember being in elementary school, at the front of the line where we were called the leader. In high school we may have been a captain of a varsity sport, president of a club, or just a leader in our circle of friends. Those situations illustrate that leadership is what it is, and not too much more. Once we return from the elementary restroom, we’re back to being students. Once off the field, we are simply teenagers once again. When with other groups besides our small circle, we’re not necessarily the ones with any elevated status.
Yet, we cast leadership with a broad brushstroke and over-glorify its power to handle what society throws at us as educators. We also lay blame to leaders when things don’t go well. We fire the boss. Poor leadership might not be the reason schools are failing. It certainly is not the reason the bread won’t rise or why it rains … why we lose golf balls … why we get parking tickets … why the computer froze … or why we can’t stay on a diet. Some may try to make an indirect link to leadership for these phenomena; those are the people who call for the coach to be fired when the franchise president hired the players.
To them we say: “Stop using leadership (or the lack of) as the reason bad things happen. Stop the over-simplification of everything - as a result of one concept.”
When in an argument with friends, try using Fullan’s six steps, or slide into one of Bolman and Deal’s four frames when you are not catching fish. I’m sure they’ll be inspired to take a bite. The next time you need to help someone fix a flat tire, consider Johari’s Window. When someone’s punching you in the nose, “Seek first to understand,” as Covey might suggest …
Viewing the video Derek Sivers: How to Start a Movement (see YouTube), we quickly discover that leadership is over-glorified. In this case, the video depicts one “lone nut” who is acting weird. It takes a normal, second person – a follower who people respect – to take the leader’s message and make it useful - to create a movement.
The next time something goes wrong, try not to seek out a person or action related to leadership as the cause. Instead, open your eyes and look around. It is not strong leadership that prevents adversity. Nor is it strong leadership that works through adversity; it is strong people.
Leadership is more of an opportunity than a person, more an event than a position. The Chinese philosopher and poet Lao Tzu once said, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”
This is not to say that leadership doesn’t have its place. The next time you get a chance to lead something, do it. After all, leadership can at times, provide someone upwardly mobile and opportunistic a bigger office, an increase in salary, and in some cases, less work. At other times, leadership can allow us truly to make a positive difference in people’s lives.
Yet, while leading, don’t over-estimate your impact, as leadership might only be good for leadership. It may just be a tool. Some would even say that once the system is fixed, the tool could then go back into the toolbox, contrary to the typical message delivered at anyone’s next high-priced conference event.
In times of war, we hope to have strong leadership to get us through each battle. However, if we had strong management, we would have never gone to war.
Steve Gruenert, Eric Jackson II, David McGuire, and Ryan Donlan all approach leadership from different perspectives, but what they do have in common is that they ALL approach leadership. They’re also keenly interested in what you think about their Leadershop contributions this week, so please consider shouting out at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, or email@example.com.