in Ways of Working

Can Everyone Really Be a Meaningful Leader?

Over the past few years there seems to have been a push from some in education to make everyone a leader. There has been an effort to give power to a wider range of people, spreading leadership across the board. A part of this movement is a move from a top-down to a bottoms-up model. (See for example, such programs as Leading Teams and Restorative Justice, both of which focus on relationships as a way changing culture.) The two questions that come out of all these changes is ‘what is leadership?’ and ‘can everyone really be a leader?’
 
So, what is leadership? Dictorary.com defines leadership as:
the position or function of a leader, a person who guides or directs a group
Thinking about this, there are two things that need to be addressed. Firstly, what does it mean to ‘guide and direct’, and secondly, what does it mean to be in a ‘group’. In regards to first question, there are many ways to ‘guide and direct’. Sometimes it might be overseeing a project, monitoring everything, making sure that everyone is on task, other times it might be providing support through the development of curriculum or the implementation of an initiative. While in relation to ‘groups’ we are all a part of many groups at once, some that we maybe in charge of, others that we may simply be members of. Although this covers it, there is still something missing.
In addition to ‘guiding or directing a group’, leadership can also be thought about as both a naming word and a doing word. Often when we reflect upon the notion of leadership we are left pondering about those who have been appointed to various positions of responsibility, those in charge of making the big decisions, those whose choices have a visible impact on the set-up and structure of a school, those anointed with a title. The problem with this way of seeing things is that it does not capture the idea of leadership as a characteristic. On the other side of the coin are those who lead in the way they work. Although these people may not necessarily be named ‘leaders’, in charge of significant groups, be found in closed meetings, instead these people embody the principles of leadership in what they do in their day to day activities. +Dan Rockwell puts this best in his blog post ‘How to Become a Leader Before You are One’ when he says:

Reading and talking are useful, even essential, but experience matters most. Leadership is about practice more than theory. Every leadership behaviour can be practised as a volunteer.

Rockwell goes on to provide a long list of things that people can do to demonstrate leadership before they are actually leaders. Some of the examples that he provides include:
  • Take initiative.
  • Solve problems
  • Motivate others
  • Manage projects
  • Endure through adversity
  • Teach others your skills
  • Adapt to others
  • Deal with stagnation and resistance
  • Act with generosity and compassion

 

These are attributes that can easily be added. For as +sethgodin argued in a recent post, it is a poor excuse to simply suggest that some people are gifted with certain attributes, while others don’t. As he suggested:
Someone who is likable, honest, curious and thoughtful is easy to think of as gifted. This natural charisma and care is worth seeking out in the people we choose to work with.
The thing is, it’s a copout to call these things gifts. You might be born with a headstart in one area or another, you might be raised in a culture or with parents that reinforce some of these things, but these are attitudes, and attitudes can be taught, and they can be learned.

The same thing can be said about the characteristics of leadership. Although there can be only one principal or one head of a KLA, we all have the opportunity to learn new traits and be leaders on a daily basis.

The question that remains then is what stops everyone from having a meaningful impact when it comes to leadership? Returning to Leading Teams Model, often the answer relates to the culture of a school, the ability to develop a ‘trademark’ that everyone is able to buy into. The problem with this is that it does not marry well with the traditional top-down model of management where the power and control is held by a small group of leadership, rather than dispersed throughout the organisation. People need to not only be empowered, but their roles also need to be recognised in a meaningful way. This does not necessarily mean that everyone has to have a ‘named’ position. However, it does mean that those with power to make significant differences support those below them, not simply palm off those jobs and responsibilities that seem tedious or banal, giving them a legitimate voice. In the end, the first challenge to empowering everyone as a leader is how we support each other to get the most out of each and every situation.

How does your school or organisation support the idea of everyone as a leader? Does it work? Is it meaningful? Leave a comment below?

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Aaron Davis

I am an Australian educator supporting the integration of technology and innovation. I have an interest in how collectively we can work to creating a better tomorrow.

Can Everyone Really Be a Meaningful Leader? by Aaron Davis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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  1. Sadly, my experience in recent times is that the people who are most vocal about distributed leadership in public are the most likely the micromanage in day-to-today practice and use official power at the drop of the hat. Rather than thinking about leadership per se, I think it works better to me to think about how I can influence other people with the best I can and be influenced or inspired by other people.

    For the most part, I think that official leadership works best when it is largely invisible, when people just do their jobs well so that people in their organisation can do their jobs the best they can.

    • I agree Mark that official leadership works best when it is largely invisible. Another take on this is when the ‘leaders’ on paper use their position to empower others. In such an environment, leadership is highly visible. The danger though is that it can simply becomes lip service.