Five Traits of Exemplary Leaders
Dr. Gus Mellander
There are a number of leadership traits or qualities that have been discussed in class this semester. To pick just five of them as the most meaningful is difficult. I would like to choose five that I believe are the most critical in the educational arena. I have written much this semester about the differences between educational leadership and private industry leadership. It has only been recently, after discussing the issues with a classmate, that I have come to view the intent of the course differently. My focus in this paper is to reflect on several qualities that I believe make a good leader and how those qualities might be developed within me. My goal is to explore my own potential for leadership and to identify traits within myself that might serve me in a leadership capacity. Additionally, I want to examine traits that I might value in a leader and seek ways in which these characteristics can be attained or developed within myself. In rereading the syllabus of assignments, I can see where this topic might have been explored more appropriately in an earlier essay, but it is my hope that I will be able to expand on the ideas there and perhaps create a more reflective paper in the process.
Throughout the semester I have focused less on the qualities of leadership and more on the comparison between leadership in the schools versus leadership in private businesses. I think that for many teachers and others who work in a public school environment there is an automatic, almost reflexive, response whenever there is talk about adopting a "business" model of school administration. While this might not be entirely a bad thing, it does lead to rejecting ideas that could well be appropriate and meaningful. As I will explain later in this paper, one of the traits that one should value in a leader is openness to new ideas and philosophies. I would like to draw upon the readings and class discussions to examine five traits of leadership that I feel are valuable and necessary for school leaders: communication, embodiment, trust, openness to new ideas, and sense of humor.
There are many qualities and leadership traits that we have read about. I think that it is quite telling that communication is on every list that we have seen. Clearly, the ability to communicate, to spread one's message or story, is paramount in any leadership situation. Gardener (1995) cites the relating and embodying of "stories" as a means for leaders to achieve effectiveness. The message here is that there are many forms of communication. It is, of course, critical that a leader (or one who aspires to a leadership role) must make his message clear. What does he stand for? What are her goals? This message must be imparted to one's audience. This theme is reinforced by Smith (1986) who writes that a leader must be a good teacher. Leaders must be able to be good teachers to share insights and experiences. Leaders can inspire, motivate, and influence subordinates at various levels through the use of teaching ability. Obviously, one must be a good communicator in order to be an effective teacher. Without the ability to clearly and effectively communicate a message, goal, story, or philosophy, it is impossible to lead.
This need for good communication skills is borne out in the report of the Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL). In a recent report, the IEL (2001) drew comparisons between the "traditional" roles of principals and the roles for which today's leaders need to prepare. Where principals have historically been viewed as manager's of their buildings - ordering supplies, dealing with personnel, and handling conflict. The principal of tomorrow will need to have a vision of teaching and learning. The new roles for principals will require that they have the ability to work with teachers to strengthen teaching skills. These new roles will require enhanced communication with teachers, other school leaders, and the community. The new school leaders must be focused on teaching and developing a program for strengthening student learning. Only a leader with exceptional communication skills would be able to achieve what is needed in today's schools. It is all the more critical today because of the significant changes that are occurring in society. Schools must have leaders who can guide people through the changes. Communication skills, both top-down and bottom-up, are a vital part of dealing with those changes. Subordinates must feel as though they have timely and appropriate information from their leaders and they must feel as though they have a means by which they can communicate to their superiors. The significance of good communication skills in a leader cannot be overstated. I have worked for several people in leadership roles who have not been good communicators. I don't know whether this has been because they do not posses the skills needed to communicate effectively, or because they choose not to communicate with subordinates, but the result is the same. Their example, more than anything else, has helped me to understand that this is a quality that I must have in order to succeed as a leader.
Another important trait of leadership is closely related to communication but important enough to deserve a separate discussion. Writing about this trait or quality of leadership, it is worth noting that Gardener specifically uses the word "relate" rather than "tell" in writing about a leader and his story. There are many ways to communicate. Embodiments, or the ways in which leaders conduct their lives, must be clearly perceptible by those whom they wish to influence (1995). An effective leader, therefore, must not only communicate his message through words, but also through his actions. Gardner speaks of this as indirect leadership. It might also be called "leading by example". A leader's credibility within her domain is certainly increased if she performs within her area of expertise in the same ways that she would ask others. By the same token, leaders who do not "practice what they preach" stand to lose credibility. Principals and other school leaders who wish to motivate people to their way of thinking or to achieve a particular goal for the school must embody their message. This is perhaps one of the most difficult things to do for a direct leader. During those times when I held leadership positions, I found it quite easy to direct others to adopt policies or philosophies that I found to be important. I had the greatest amount of difficulty in living up to standards that I had set for others. This manifested itself more in educational practices. My feeling is that I have been driven by readings and reflections more than by practice. Thus, when I ask others to adopt, say, a particular teaching style, it is without the benefit of having utilized it myself. I have seen the effects of this and have learned from it in the past. It remains a valuable lesson. Learning from experience and then communicating that experience to others is a strong communication tool. This is something that I would need to be aware of in assuming any leadership role.
As with communication, trust is a quality that I have come to value more than any other because of my experiences - both with leaders who have given me their trust and with those who have not. Smith (1986) makes trust number one on his list of 20 key fundamentals for leaders to remember. This trust allows leaders to nurture subordinate leaders within an organization. It also serves to give the employees ownership of the management process or at least of their working situation. I have seen many people in administrative positions who are unable or unwilling to give employees their trust to use their talents and skills. This makes it quite difficult for a team to work cooperatively. Kotter (1999) recognizes the importance of trust in his book stating that it is easy for misunderstandings to occur when there is a lack of trust. This exhibits itself most often when leaders, or managers, do not have a trusting relationship with their subordinates. Kotter relates that few organizations can be characterized as having a high level of trust between employees and managers. This was also a point made by Bissell in his video presentation. The nature of leadership is that the leader is typically the one who is "in the know" and when employees are not aware of all of the pertinent information or feel that information is being withheld from them they are more likely to resist changes. I have experienced this to a great degree. In fact, a coworker who left my school system to work for a local college spoke of trust as the biggest difference in the two working environments. This is particularly unfortunate because a lack of mutual trust tends to create an "us" vs. "them" situation. School systems, with limited resources and great demands, can ill afford to operate in this fashion. Employees must be trusted to do their jobs, employers must be trusted to do what is best for all concerned. This represents a risk that must be taken. As a leader in a school or college environment, I would need to take the risk of trusting those who work for me to carry out the mission of the school.
In today's society we are witnessing a number of great changes. The advent of technology, teaching and learning strategies to capitalize on that technology, and the impact that changes have on society as a whole require that a successful leader be someone who can accept and encourage a variety of ideas and points of view. The IEL report referred to earlier in this paper suggest that the new school leader must be someone who can work in concert with a number of stakeholders in the public schools. The school leader must be willing to listen to a variety of ideas, compare them with his own, and ultimately select a course of action that is best for the students. This acceptance of differing viewpoints might come at the expense of his own philosophy. The strength of character needed to see that there is perhaps is a better way of doing things is indeed desirable. Smith (1986), in his list of 20 Fundamentals to Remember, refers to this in a number of his points. He states that a leader must be open-minded, interested in hearing new points of view, and eager to deal with new issues. Leaders must be willing to listen to contrary views and new approaches. He further states that leaders must be patiently decisive. That they should listen to all sides before making a decision. Leaders should even postpone major decisions until all sides can be heard.
The final leadership trait that I view as essential is humor. That this trait is described by a number of authors pleases me. It is easy for some to dismiss a sense of humor as not desirable in a leader (perhaps believing that those in charge should be serious). In my experience, I have found it invaluable in dealing with other people, particularly in tense or stressful situations. Smith notes that a leader should not only be able to inject humor into situations of crisis or stress, but should also be able to relate stories about their own mistakes. This communicates to employees that the leader is human also and that they are willing to admit their errors. Kotter indicates his belief that humor and non-work discussions can be used as effective tools for building relationships and maintaining them under stressful conditions. I have worked with a number of administrators who fortunately valued humor in dealing with others. This creates a working environment that is less stressful, more informal (in situations where that is appropriate), and more conducive to cooperation.
It has been difficult to narrow the traits of a leader down to only five that I think are most meaningful. The five about which I have written here are the most important to me, personally. It is interesting to note that the five that I have chosen are very interdependent. A leader's strength in communicating is enhanced by humor, trust, and ability to listen to other viewpoints. In order to trust, a leader must be able to communicate. The subject of my interview, Sam Perry, noted emphatically that trust and communication go hand and hand. Employees must be able to trust employers when they are encouraged to communicate negative thoughts and opinions. They have to trust that the leader is sincere in his desire to listen to a variety of viewpoints. Thus are four of my five traits related. The fifth, embodiment, is a trait that is overarching. It provides the canvas, perhaps, on which the other characteristics are drawn. Leaders must posses the character to work the way they would ask others to work, to provide a model for working, interactions, communications, and acceptance of new ideas. Leaders who wish to develop communication or a strong work ethic in their employees must model these behaviors themselves.
Is it a guarantee that, if a leader possesses these traits that she will be successful? I doubt it. Leaders, and, particularly, aspiring leaders, must recognize that there are myriad factors that effect the success or failure of a leader. Many external factors come into play in determining how well a leader can do his job. Can someone who does not possess each of these five traits be a successful leader? That, too, is possible. Leaders who do not possess a sense of humor, or have a difficult time accepting new and varied ideas, can overcome these obstacles through strengths in other areas.
My opinion is that these five are the most meaningful traits of leaders we have studied this semester. They are meaningful because I believe that these five represent traits that I find most important in leaders for whom I work and are the five that I would like to develop and strengthen within myself. The first step, as with any process of development, is awareness of issues. From there, it is a journey of self-discovery and improvement to become successful as a leader.
Gardner, H. (1995). Leading minds: An anatomy of leadership.New York: BasicBooks.
Kotter, J. P. (1999). John P. Kotter on what leaders really do. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
Smith, P. (1986). Taking charge: A practical guide for leaders. Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press