Leaders Articles & Stories Content

Be Leaders: Do Leadership

Barry Z. Posner

Learning about leadership is not the same as learning to be a leader. This "blinding flash of the obvious" comes after being a leadership scholar for more than 30 years and serving as a leader for much of that time. Too much of what I see in business education is teaching about leadership: leadership theories and concepts or social psychological concepts applied to leadership. What we should be teaching our students is how to be leaders.

Learning to be a leader doesn't happen enough. Don't get me wrong. Students do learn what is required to be a leader. But students—along with executives, public servants, clergy, physicians, etc.—can't be leaders by restricting their learning of leadership to the classroom. Just as medical students can't become surgeons by only operating on cadavers or elected officials can't make budget decisions without prioritizing among competing 'goods', our students can't learn to be leaders until they experience leading themselves.

Of course, that's the rub, and also the source of the familiar refrain, "I can teach about leadership, but only the student can learn it." Therefore, the reason we need to be doing things differently in our leadership curriculum is that leadership development is fundamentally the development of the inner self. Being a leader requires leading from within more than leading from outside.

Organizations can only pay people to manage; there are no intrinsic reasons for leading. In fact, it's hard to imagine people getting up day-after-day and putting in the countless hours required to get extraordinary things accomplished, unless they have their hearts in it.

Leadership is hard work. It is about going beyond a job description-like caring. From a missed meal or night of sleep, leadership also requires sacrifice if you want to make a difference. Does anyone tell their graduates that they can expect to get ahead in their careers or lives by working regular 9-to-5 hours?

In every leadership seminar I teach—whether undergraduate or graduate students, or practitioners—would-be leaders are required to go out and lead, and then come back and reflect on that experience in order to learn how to be a better leader. Of course, I offer ideas, concepts, techniques, and strategies in an effort to make the seminar assignment successful. But what participants don't always realize at the start is that (a) I really don't have anything to teach them that they don't already know, and (b) that becoming a better leader only happens in the 'doing' of leadership. The 'grade' on such an assignment is not a measure of their work output but comes from their reflections on what they learned from the experience (irrespective of the outcome), and what they would do differently given another opportunity.

My co-author, Jim Kouzes, and I talk about leadership practices because we know that it is only through disciplined practice that one can gain mastery. In this regard, talent is over-rated. Organizations will prosper more by gaining a 1 percent improvement in 100 people than they will by getting the most talented individual to do 100 percent better.

Another outcome of asking students and practitioners to 'do' leadership in order to learn to be better leaders is the value of their remarkable accomplishments-most of which would not have happened if these same individuals were not required to do something different. This leads to still another keen insight into leadership: there is no shortage of opportunities to lead and make a difference. (There's wisdom in the old adage, "Where there is a will, there is a way.")

It never fails to anger and frustrate me when asked, "Are leaders born or made?" Leadership is a skill. And while this set of abilities is normally distributed in a population just as any other talent is, it can be made (learned) in the same fashion as any other ability. But no amount of practicing and coaching can make up for the lack of desire, motivation, drive, or passion on the part of the individual to do better than they are currently doing. Which brings us full circle, where leadership begins inside of us as we try to figure out such questions as who am I, why do I do what I do, what's important to me, and the like.

The same challenge is equally applicable to higher education administration. We don't ask department chairs to be leaders, so the outcome is the same as teaching about leadership without doing it and reflecting on what was done as a leader.

We politely call them department chairs (perish the thought that we would be putting them on some pedestal), but they are more like bureaucrats (from a public administration perspective) or managers (using business jargon) than leaders. Where do we use the term "department leaders?" Isn't it true that few of our faculty want to become department chairs (let alone Deans!) or volunteer to "chair" their departments? Indeed, in a great Catch-22, we're mostly suspicious of anyone that would volunteer to be a department chair, wondering what "power trip" they might be on or what vendetta they want to pursue.

As leaders on our campuses we have often decried the "cosmopolitan" norms of the faculty who have been educated to be more concerned with and attuned to professional standards than to "local" or institutional considerations. Let's appreciate that there doesn't have to be a contest between these two orientations. The good work of the faculty in academic and professional communities serves the needs of our students for current and validated information. And the questions, issues, hypotheses and applications that students raise serves to heighten the richness and depth of faculty understanding and knowledge. After all, as often pointed out, if you really want to know a subject, try teaching it to others.

Figuring out what is important inside applies to the faculty, just as much as it does to our students. The plain truth is that most organizations conspire to make department chairs and others in hierarchical positions into managers. And they do this conspiratorially by keeping everyone so busy-barely managing to complete all the tasks already on their plates-that they don't have any time to lead. Putting out fires and dealing with matters that have happened in the past, managers are confined to responding to whatever is happening right now in front of them.

In this way, they deal more with "what" should I be doing than "why" should I be doing (anything). The future is the time domain of leaders: "What should I be doing today that will get us to where we want to be in the future?" is the leadership question.

Language also influences our thinking and behavior. At Santa Clara, we scrapped our traditional undergraduate and graduate policy committees in favor of leadership teams-as in the "Undergraduate LEADERSHIP Team." The same faculty members are still involved, but are now responsible for setting an annual agenda around what will make our program better, rather than simply making decisions around new courses, reviewing prerequisites, admissions standards, etc. (which, by the way, they still do). Just this shift in language has altered their perspective: from holding onto the status quo (managing) to figuring out what needs to be changed (leading). We're working hard to reduce the administrivia connected with department chairs' responsibilities so that they only have two leadership tasks: curriculum innovation and faculty development.

I'm often pointing out, with all due humility, that it is so much easier to write about leadership than it is to do leadership. But in this doing, in the being of leading, I am confident that I have become a more astute scholar about leadership and more insightful about how to liberate the leader within everyone.

Barry Z. Posner is Dean of the Leavey School of Business and Professor of Leadership at Santa Clara University where he has received numerous teaching and innovation awards. He is co-author of The Leadership Challenge.


Articles & Stories

We use cookies to ensure that we provide you with the best user experience. By accessing our website, you consent to our Cookie Policy. Read more about our Cookie Policy. Additional information can also be found in our Privacy Policy.