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The Myth of the Leadership Silver Bullet

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEarlier this week in just 60 seconds of perusing my news digest app, I counted over a half dozen articles promising quick, essential cures for leadership woes. “The Six Traits…” “Five Things Every Leader…” “Seven Secrets of…” You know the blogs. The headlines capture reader attention and the content generally provides some truth. But not the whole truth, for at least four reasons:

  • Leadership is far more complex than five to seven key traits, roles or factors. My review of the research uncovered at least 24 different core leadership responsibilities.
  • Leadership is situational. No one can concentrate on 24 roles at once—and in fact those roles involve 12 polarities–interdependent sets of priorities/values that are both necessary over time. In given situations, some are more important than others. Consider for a moment the reasons several school principals asked to work with me:
    • One had been hired from outside the district; no one had informed her of the existing conflict, which had escalated into workplace bullying, before she started
    • Another had been charged with creating an exciting new magnet school but the staff had been assigned to the building and several had little interest in the school’s focus
    • The principal was concerned about his lack of progress with helping the special education department develop a growth mindset toward students
    • Only a small percentage of 7th grade students at a high-poverty school were meeting grade-level expectations
    • The principal wanted to establish deep collaborative practices among teachers with effective peer coaching

    The same three, or five, or seven “secrets” of leadership will not help these leaders. They each needed to focus on a different subset of the 24 key roles/priorities.

  • A leader’s work is polarized. Those 24 roles compete with each other for a leader’s attention. Have you ever felt pulled in two directions at once? That’s the nature of leadership: Trying to be visionary while staying grounded in reality. Focusing on business outcomes while building a collaborative environment. Those are just two of the 12 interdependent, polarizing sets of leadership roles.
  • Leaders are individuals. What works for one doesn’t work for another. What one does well is another’s worst nightmare.

The “Magic Bullet” blogs can definitely heighten awareness of what we are/aren’t doing as leaders. However, if you wish to develop as a leader, dig deeper.

Jane Kise is a consultant and executive coach. The founder of Differentiated Coaching Associates and author of over 20 books, she works with schools and businesses worldwide to help create environments where everyone can flourish.

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