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The Notion of Leadership is Shifting

Posted Feb 14 2010 11:18am


What do you think of when you try and define the concept leadership? I surveyed my Twitter community recently and was struck with the diversity represented as they grappled with the idea. Most of the definitions spoke to leadership belonging to a group broader than individual leaders.  Which is a shift from the dictionary definition:


1. the position or function of a leader: He managed to maintain his leadership of the party despite heavy opposition.
2. ability to lead: She displayed leadership potential.
3. an act or instance of leading; guidance; direction: They prospered under his leadership.
4. the leaders of a group: The union leadership agreed to arbitrate.

Up until recently we have generally considered leadership to be synonymous with a person in a position of formal authority.  But I think there is a new realization emerging that when we limit leadership to the behaviors of one person, we are limiting the possibilities of community based participation. School leadership specifically should be a broad concept that is separated from individuals and a predetermined set of behaviors performed by those in charge. The time has come to broaden the concept of leadership to include a shared responsibility for a shared purpose of the educational community.

Leadership Theory
It helps to have a basic understanding of the theory supporting a particular concept when considering the needed shift. A cursory look at the various types of leadership theory all point to individuals who lead and followers who follow. Why this happens is up for grabs, but across the theories one will see that individuals are at the crux of the leadership or change that is occurring.

However, it is also important to note that, “Despite thousands of empirical studies yielding hundreds of definitions of leadership, there is still no consensus about it.” (Evans, 1996, p. 116). For example in trait theory the basic assumption is that if an individual possess certain traits - we have good leadership. This idea that certain traits are needed and if I do not have them, then I should look for those more gifted than I to take the lead, has caused many who would have pitched in to help lead, back away.  (You can get a quick primer on leadership theories here.

But even with transformational leadership (the leadership model which until recently, most closely aligned with my personal leadership philosophy) described by Kouzes and Posner in their book,  The Leadership Challenge (2002), there is an individual at the head- the Transformational Leader - who seeks to transform the organization, promising to the followers that in this process will be transformed in some way. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing unless the organization does not need transforming.

Kouzes and Posner’s transformational leadership is described as:

Model the way
Modeling means going first, living the behaviors you want others to adopt. This is leading from the front. People will believe not what they hear leaders say but what they see leader consistently do.
Inspire a shared vision
People are motivated most not by fear or reward, but by ideas that capture their imagination.
Note that this is not so much about having a vision, but communicating it so effectively that others take it as their own.
Challenge the process
Leaders thrive on and learn from adversity and difficult situations. They are early adopters of innovation.
Enable others to act
Encouragement and exhortation is not enough. People must feel able to act and then must have the ability to put their ideas into action.
Encourage the heart
People act best of all when they are passionate about what they are doing. Leaders unleash the enthusiasm of their followers this with stories and passions of their own.

None of us is as good as all of us
While it is obvious that that leaders do perform acts of leadership, I agree with Linda Lambert that looking at the two separately encourages us to reconceptualize the concept (Lambert, 1998). What if when we referred to building leadership capacity we thought of community-based, skillful involvement in the work of leadership? What if principals saw their role as helping their staff develop the skills that enabled them to find, connect and collaborate with those who have giftings and expertise important to the passionate changes and reforms that they wanted to lead? What if the instructional leadership role and the professional development role that administrators had in a school was to add value to the lives and dreams of their faculty? What if administrators understood that the skill their teachers needed was to understand how to capture the imagination of their colleagues and enabled them to evoke real change in their own classrooms, schools, and beyond and to tackle the inevitable conflicts that arise from such risk-taking, innovative behavior?

Leadership needs to be reconceptulaized to include the wisdom of the crowd. The skill set includes understanding how to leverage the wisdom of the crowd without simply developing a group think mentality.

Leadership, when conceptualized through a community lens, puts the concept “leadership” as being more global than the sum of its “leaders”. A viral flow is generated by those who are choosing to lead. It is the excitement and wave of energy and purpose created by a group of leaders who are committed to the work that pulls others in the community (including the formal leader) into the work of leadership. Everyone becomes engaged and has ownership in the improvement initiative. Leaders in the work are there because each brings something unique or purposeful to the cause.

The shift is - leadership becomes a learning together, a constructing meaning together, and a growing in expertise and understanding collaboratively and collectively, rather than a “do it because I say so mentality” or a “do it because I am so awesome that I inspire you to participate mentality” or “do it for the team mentality”. Leadership becomes an opportunity to learn socially by reflecting deeply with each other. Opportunities to negotiate perceptions, values, dispositions, information, and assumptions together through the continuing of conversations taking place in the community, allows the shared leadership to make sense of the work in the light of new ideas and shared beliefs. This in turn creates a series of actions, adaptations and improvements which grow out of the schematically connected new understandings. The sum becomes more powerful than it’s parts. Together in leadership we are much more amazing than we ever were apart. None of us is as good as all of us.

Leadership becomes a learning process in which collaborative leaders construct and reconstruct meaning as a means to positive school change. Leadership becomes the capacity to learn collaboratively, globally, and use the new understanding to inform the mission or initative being developed. Leadership has direction toward a shared purpose.

Scary Part
Leadership in the 21st Century will need to be distributive. Shared. There will be a realignment of power and authority from individuals to groups. Brave superintendents and principals will learn to release personal authority and instead develop capacity in their faculties to use their newly gained personal power in ways that enhance the value of the whole. Teachers need to see school change as a collective endeavor that they no longer can abdicate  to formal leadership. In a learning community, leadership becomes the right and democratic duty of each individual the school and in the transparent venue of learning together in the presence of others- excuses, laziness, and blame for why change isn’t managed effectively or truly effective innovations aren’t implemented isn’t tolerated.

Your Thoughts
Obviously, these ideas are emergent and need the powerful meaning a community of reflective learners can bring. Please share your ideas and where you see strength and loop holes in this reconceptualization of leadership. I am very interested in your thoughts and thoughtful reflection.Please reply below.


Evans, R. (1996). The human side of school change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kouzes, J. & Posner, B.  (2002). The leadership challenge. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Lambert, L. (1998). Building leadership capacity in schools. Alexandria: ASCD

Straker, D. (2009) Leadership theories.  Retrieved:

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