A Little Box of Leadership

This semester, our students, funded by a state grant, have been asked to focus on the knotty term “leadership,” as in “teacher leader.” It’s one of those topics we all think we know a lot about, and in a way, we do. We can certainly recognize the broad outlines of it, but the specifics are more elusive. To find the latest answers, we’ve gone “in search of excellence,” we’ve asked moving questions, and recently it seems as if we are all “leaning in” to get the one real answer. It can be overwhelming. There seem to be as many definitions of leadership as there are consultants selling their books. My favorite definition is Max DePree’s classic notion of what works. He sums it up like this, “The first responsibility of the leader is to define reality. The last is to say ‘thank you!’ In between the two, the leader must become a servant . . .” (11).

But like most really important questions, real satisfying answers are not likely on the bookshelf, but deep inside each of us. Good books just tell us where to look. After all, most of us have at some point in our lives been on both sides of the leadership equation—leading and following. We certainly have valid stories to tell. While these anecdotal experiences are notoriously unreliable, they can still be helpful in building a first-person understanding of the mysterious position of “learning leader” that a teacher is thrust into.

Inescapably, teachers are professional leaders. Consequently, “What works?” is more than a passing question. Careers are built and lost on the answer. What we know is that there is no standard profile. Effective learning leaders come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, demeanors, and characters. Like good leaders in every field, they are old and young, tall and short, women and men. Some are loud and boisterous; others are quiet and reserved. Some are funny, while others could never be. Some wear track suits while others would never show up without a tie. Finding a common denominator for these dedicated men and women is not easy.

What real leaders are appears to be more important than their physical description.  A few years ago, one of my graduate students, Lois Ingles, asked seventy-six teachers to rank six characteristics of good teachers identified in the literature (Good & Brophy, 1984; Rosenshine & Furst, 1997; Purkey, 1978—as cited in Ingles, 2001). These characteristics included dynamic, warm, confident, authentic, knowledgeable, and organized. Of the seventy-six teachers, fifty of them had been recognized at some point in his/her career as a Teacher of the Year (from building level to state level), while twenty-six had not been. Ingles wanted to know if there was a difference between these groups relative to how they ranked these characteristics. Although not statistically significant, there appeared to be a preference. Teachers recognized as exemplary models of good teaching agreed that authenticity is a fundamental trait of learning leaders, while no clear-cut opinion was seen in the other group.

A few years later, my research class used Ingles’s simple survey to ask a sample of high school (n=72) and college students (n=72) to rank the same characteristics as they preferred them in their teachers. Students seemed to agree with good teachers. In each group, authentic was a clear favorite. Apparently being real or genuine trumps all other characteristics more commonly associated with good teaching. What we found out was that students and good teachers are like Holden Caulfield. They don’t like phonies.

I think there’s something here for us as students of “leadership.” Like the tiny boxes of cereal in a Kellogg’s Variety Pack, there are lots of flavors to choose from. But count on it—if it says All Bran on the outside, there will not be Sugar Pops inside. In high quality cereal, the stuff in the little box will match the picture on the outside. Based on what I’ve seen with our preferences for characteristics, that seems to be true of leaders. As Carl Rogers suggested a long time ago, being genuine, or congruent as he called it, matters for teachers. We tend to prefer our teachers, pastors, professors, coaches, and even politicians to be real—the same on the inside as they are on the outside, the same in the supermarket aisle as they are in the workplace.

In any venue, but especially in teaching, leadership may be more about who you are than the role you play. Clearly there is no external pattern. Good teachers are not cookie-cutter versions, one of the other. Like the cereal boxes in the variety pack, some are sweet and others are not, some are rough and others smooth, but they all serve a purpose. So my advice is to graciously serve what you have. If you’re loud . . . be loud! If you are funny, tell jokes. If you are not funny, don’t try to be. Just make sure the stuff on the inside matches the pictures on the outside of the box. I have few other leadership insights other than authentic serving. I understand that’s really abstract and hard for those who want the four easy steps or seven effective habits or ten easy lessons. But don’t fret, there will be lots of superficial “how to’s” in the next guru’s Big Box of Leadership book of the week.

Works Cited

  • DePree, Max. Leadership Is an Art. New York: Dell Publishing, 1989.
  • Ingles, Lois N. “What Makes Good Teachers Good? Teachers Speak Out.” An unpublished master’s thesis. Lee University, Cleveland, TN, 2001.
  • Rogers, Carl R. Freedom to Learn. Columbus, OH: Merrill Publishing Company, 1969.