The One Thing Every Great Leader Has Figured Out

September 11, 2018

A newly hired assistant principal asked me, “What qualities make an effective leader?” His goal this year is to observe established leaders in the field and identify commonalities. There is no shortage of research on the topic. Hundreds of books have been written about leadership, but my advice to him was simply this: become yourself. Take what you learn and make it applicable to you. That’s easier said than done when the current climate sends a different message.

I have taken a dozen personality and leadership style inventories. Each attempts to identify areas of leadership strength and weakness. In my experience, the focus usually lands on the weakness with the challenge being: “What can you do to improve in this area?” Be more of a people-person, or perhaps less of a talker.  Be more agreeable, or perhaps less of a push-over. Be more transparent, or try to hide your emotions. And naively, I took the advice! For years, I strived to become what I am not wired to be. You can “fake it until you make it” for a while, but it is impossible to sustain such an effort in the long run. Growing professionally is important; however, it is far more productive to focus on acquiring the skills that will enable you to tackle the leadership tasks more efficiently than to attempt to change your dispositions. You’ll never maintain enough emotional energy to work against yourself. And why should you?

Each of us was designed as a unique creation. Capitalize on this truth by shifting focus to your strengths. Never apologize to anyone (including yourself) about who you are. What we perceive as inadequacies are often the very things that drive the elements of our being for which we receive the most praise.

I’m not very social by nature. As a result, I am able to immerse myself in tedious work for long hours that yields high results for the team. What are your labels? How would others describe you – both the positive and negative? Write that down and determine how they are linked. If the perceived negative trait is driving the positive, I claim that you stop worrying so much about what others think. Strive to be your best self, not someone else’s version of what you should be.

Think of someone considered to be a historically great leader. He or she had flaws – perhaps even ones that made him or her notable. It is our mistake in leadership development to convey the notion of a leadership pedestal where the ideal leader resides with a complete set of effective leadership qualities. We put pressure on ourselves (and often accept the pressure that others desire to put on us). Acknowledge your humanity. Great leaders have figured out they can’t be everything to everybody. Instead, be authentically you. That’s something everyone can appreciate. Instead of trying to embody all the qualities of a theoretically great leader, put most of your effort into honing the ones already woven into your DNA.

Begin to see others through this lens as well. You’ll miss out on cultivating the team’s potential if you spend time criticizing the shortcomings. Embrace the idea that a person’s qualities are intertwined, working together in the body like the gears of a machine. Our challenge as leaders is to channel it all for a positive impact in our schools for the students whom we serve. When building a team, choose people whose qualities are different. Assign roles and responsibilities based on strengths. The most successful leaders have teams in which each teammate is functioning within his or her area of greatest strength for the majority of the time. When we focus on putting our greatest assets to work, the whole team will accomplish more.

Is there a magic combination of qualities that make a great leader? I hope our assistant principal will let me know when he finds out. In the meantime, make your own magic as a leader by putting to good use the qualities you already possess and empowering your team to do the same. Not only will you begin to thrive in your work, but your team will grow to a level of effectiveness that was previously inconceivable.

Tiffany Osborne, NBCT

Tiffany W. Osborne @TOsborneIF is the Associate Principal at Robert Anderson Middle School and is a National Board Certified Teacher (2008, 2018). She earned a Masters and Ed.S. degree from Furman University in Educational Leadership and is currently working on a Ed.D. in Education Systems Improvement Science through Clemson University.