What is "leadership"? - SmartBrief

All Articles Education What is "leadership"?

What is “leadership”?

Find out which qualities create the foundation for successful leadership in schools and beyond.

5 min read




Character is the center pole, the core of leadership effectiveness.  — Zenger and Folkman (The Extraordinary Leader)

In May, I read an article that asked the question, “Is your school better because you lead it?”

Good question. But there are three other questions that should be asked before you can judge whether your answer will be “yes,” “maybe” or “no.”

The primary question is: What is leadership? We must know what “leadership” is before deciding its value. Once we are on the same “leadership page,” we could ask ourselves several addition questions, such as: What is leadership in a school setting? Does the culture of an organization (business, nonprofit, educational) determine or influence the style or behaviors of its leaders? Are there differences — traits/habits/behaviors/styles — between male and female leaders in and out of schools settings?

The focus in this blog is to get a sense of what leadership is because it helps lay the groundwork for examining the other questions.

So, what do we mean when we talk about “leadership?” Depends on who you ask and what you read. I have had a long-term interest in presidential leadership, so let’s start there. 

It is common for historians and others to rank presidents based on the effectiveness of their leadership. Rankings are based on a variety of leadership factors. Two examples.

  • Fred Greenstein in “The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to Clinton” offers six qualities related to the leadership styles and performances of presidents: public communication, organizational capacity, political skill, vision, cognitive style, and emotional intelligence. 
  • Historian Robert Dallek in Lessons from the Lives and Times of Presidents” describes seven factors that distinguish effective and ineffective presidential leaders: vision, pragmatism, charisma, consensus, trust, judgment, and luck.
  • I published an article in the Journal of Humanistic Counseling, Education, and Development titled, “Leadership for Character Education Programs.” My list for school or programs leaders suggested that school and program leaders should be visionaries, missionaries, consensus builders, knowledge sources, standard bearers, architects, role models, communicators, collaborators, resource providers, and evaluators.
  • The Turknett Leadership Group offers a “Leadership Character Model” based on the premise that “leadership is about character: “who you are, not what you do.” The model includes three core qualities:
  1. Integrity: honesty, credibility, trustworthy. “Without integrity, no leader can be successful.”
  2. Respect: empathy, lack of blame, motivational mastery, humility. “Respect helps create a culture of partnership and teamwork.”
  3. Responsibility: self-confidence, accountability, focus on the whole, courage. “Great leaders accept full responsibility for personal success and for the success of projects, teams, and the entire organization.”
  • Recently, P.B Stark wrote about the “10 C’s of Great Leadership.” His 10 included: character, communication, care, compassion, connectedness, commitment, conviction, competence, courage, and confidence.
  • Daniel Goleman, a psychologist at Rutgers University and author of “Leadership: The Power of Emotional Intelligence,” adds the ability to identify and monitor emotions– “your own and others” — and “to manage relationships.” He writes that the qualities (competencies) associated with “emotional intelligence” distinguish the best leaders and include:

Self awareness: Realistic self-confidence: You understand your own strengths and limitations; you operate from competence and know when to rely on someone else on the team.

Emotional insight: You understand your feelings. Being aware of what makes you angry, for instance, can help you manage that anger. You stay calm under pressure and recover quickly from upsets. You don’t brood or panic. In a crisis, people look to the leader for reassurance; if the leader is calm, they can be, too.

Emotional balance: You keep any distressful feelings in check — instead of blowing up at people, you let them know what’s wrong and what the solution is.  

Self-motivation: You keep moving toward distant goals despite setbacks.

Empathy: Cognitive and emotional empathy: Because you understand other perspectives, you can put things in ways colleagues comprehend. And you welcome their questions, just to be sure. Cognitive empathy, along with reading another person’s feelings accurately, makes for effective communication.    

Good listening: You pay full attention to the other person and take time to understand what they are saying, without talking over them or hijacking the agenda.

Relationship skills: Compelling communication: You put your points in persuasive, clear ways so that people are motivated as well as clear about expectations.

Team playing: People feel relaxed working with you. One sign:They laugh easily around you.

What is leadership? It is a combination of traits, competencies and qualities listed above, underscored; however, by the character of the leader — his or her moral and ethical dispositions.  

James MacGregor Burns says “When you deal with human beings in leadership situations, you deal with what is essential to the study of leadership, namely, moral and ethical issues.  Through the study of lives, one finds out how individuals have confronted specific actions and decisions relating to leaderships positions.”

Ed DeRoche is a former teacher, administrator, school board member and dean. He has written several books and articles on character education. Currently he is the director of the Character Education Resource Center at the University of San Diego and teaches in-class and online courses on instructional strategies, curriculum and programs, and character-based classroom management.


Like this article? Sign up for ASCD SmartBrief to get news like this in your inbox, or check out all of SmartBrief’s education newsletters, covering career and technical education, educational leadership, math education and more.