Dear Diary: Are leaders born or made?

Leaving UT-Austin for a full professor position at California State University Sacramento was a big life change in 2014. In my new role as Director of the Doctorate in Educational Leadership I sit on the leadership team of the College. As a result, I am often a sponge for operational information. I was struck by two recent articles about leading that I believe provide interesting insight for leaders and those choosing education leaders.

The first was published by Jack Welch on LinkedIn.

The second was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education

Welch weighs in:

From our experience, the first essential trait of leadership is positive energy – the capacity to go-go-go with healthy vigor and an upbeat attitude through good times and bad.

The second is the ability to energize others, releasing their positive energy, to take any hill.

The third trait is edge – the ability to make tough calls, to say yes or no, not maybe.

The fourth trait is the talent to execute – very simply, get things done.

Fifth and finally, leaders have passion. They care deeply. They sweat; they believe.

He continues,

As you may have figured, positive energy and the ability to energize are pretty hard-wired. They’re basically personality. Similarly, passion feels inborn. Some people just seem to come fully loaded with intensity and curiosity; they naturally love people, life, and work. It’s in them. It is them.

Edge and the ability to execute are different. New hires rarely show up with them in polished form, and even middle managers benefit from training in both. But the best teacher for these two traits is trench warfare. That’s because edge and execution are largely a function of self-confidence. You can say yes or no a heck of a lot better when you’ve done it a bunch of times and seen how well decisiveness works. Likewise, only in real world challenges can managers truly feel the power of moving quickly, demanding accountability, and rewarding results. They can also experience how damaging it is not to execute – a mistake most effective leaders don’t make twice.

“So are leaders born or made?”

The answer (perhaps not surprisingly) is both. Your best strategy, then, is to hire for energy, the ability to energize, and passion. Go full force in training and developing edge and execution. Promote the people who have a good dose of all five traits. Always remember, though, that not everyone was meant to be a leader. But as long as you are one yourself – it’s your job to find and build those who were.

I think sometimes we believe we can get the entire package in a hire. Then, when we don’t, we settle for something less than the whole package. However, when we settle for leaders who have just the made traits (edge and execution), but not the born traits (energy, people mobilization and passion)… then disappointment down the road is inevitable. So I believe the key is to identify the traits that are born, and then select leaders who clearly have the capacity to develop (edge and execution) the learned traits.

In the education space, we also have unspoken rules in our field, perhaps you could call it culture. The piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education speaks more specifically to our idiosyncrasies.

Micromanagement. People don’t generally like to have someone looking over their shoulder and telling them what to do all the time, especially intelligent, highly trained professionals. But even among professionals, [educators] are a special breed. We operate so autonomously, due to the nature of our work, that we can easily come to see ourselves as independent contractors rather than employees.

From an administrative point of view, that’s not always a good thing. And yet [educators] members do require a certain amount of intellectual independence to do our best work. That notion is so widely understood that it is codified into policy and practice at most institutions; we call it “academic freedom.”

If, as an [education] middle manager, you wish to destroy morale in your [school, department etc], you can start by dictating to your [educators] exactly what to teach, how to teach it, which materials to use, and how to evaluate students.

Not only do college professor loathe micromanagement from department chairs, but my colleagues in K-12 classroom find themselves similar disillusions with the top-down education policy silver bullets that are always flying by that many principals and other administrators adopt and enforce. I see my role as Director as finding way to create the conditions for faculty and students to buttress their successes.

Trust issues. [Educators] interpret micromanagement as lack of trust. We assume that it means our leaders simply don’t have enough faith in our ability or enough of a commitment to allow us to do our work as we see fit. Few things are more insulting than that to [educators]. Most of us are deeply committed to our profession and our students — we’re sure as heck not in it for the money — and we likely know far more about our subject matter than the [middle managers].

Of course, trust is a two-way street. To be happy and productive, [educators] need to feel trusted, but we also need to believe we can trust our leaders — to be open and honest, to follow through on promises, and to have the best interests of students and [educators] at heart.

Trust is built and earned. Educational leaders have to invest time in relationships to create trust. To gain this trust, we also have to be politically savvy, exhibit effective managerial skills, inspire transformative ideas and lead democratically (From a recent framework proposed by Carlos Nevarez). These skills are quite different in many ways from working with students. In education, the transition from the classroom to leadership is fraught with pitfalls. I believe it is one of the reasons we are often so disappointed in our leaders, because they fail to build that trust with educators in their organization.

Hogging the spotlight. The success of an organization is rarely attributable to any one person. And yet it’s natural for leaders to want to take much of the credit, for several reasons: They’re the ones in charge, after all, so the success must be due to their great leadership; they need such documented successes to solidify their positions, not to mention pave the way for future promotions; and they often take a disproportionate share of the blame when things go wrong, so why shouldn’t they take most of the credit when things go right?

I often watch Jim Harbaugh (a successful football coach). He works tirelessly to improve his team and interact with the public. Because of that dedication lots of praise comes his way— but he effortlessly deflects praise.

Effective leaders know that when their organization succeeds, they have succeeded, and they are content to spread the credit around while taking little or none for themselves.

I think its important to celebrate your colleagues. There is so much negatively in our world, our profession. For those of you that follow my Twitter or  Facebook, we work very hard to celebrate that incredible accomplishments of faculty and students. Here is an example of some of our latest celebrations here at Sacramento State.

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The blame game. Besides deflecting praise when things go right, leaders must also learn to accept the lion’s share of the blame when things go wrong.

That can be very difficult, especially if the failure really wasn’t their fault. Effective leaders understand, however, that just as they succeed when the organization succeeds, they also fail when the organization fails — whether or not the actual failure was their own. So they square their shoulders, accept the blame and accompanying criticism, and resolve to do better.

Weak and ineffectual leaders, on the other hand, are always looking for someone else to blame. Nothing is ever their fault, even when it clearly is. I can’t think of a better recipe for destroying morale in any organization…

I don’t think I can add more here. We must take responsibility when you experience failure and work hard and be more innovative when the problem presents itself in the future.

Blatant careerism. Finally, we come to one of my own personal pet peeves: Academic leaders whose sole ambition in life is to climb as high as possible on the administrative ladder and who are willing to do literally anything to achieve that ambition.

Education is a small community. If you “throw people under the bus on a rise to power” it will eventually come back to you. I think the transverse is true too. If you build positive momentum across your network— that goodwill will spread into space you might never expect. Angela Valenzuela at UT-Austin has done that for me and many others— she’s an angel and harbinger of success.

I realize this post is a departure from the typical conversation that I have about equity here at Cloaking Inequity. However, respecting each and every person you lead is equity in a leadership form. I’ll end with this quote that continues to resonate in my life as an educational leader.


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  • Leaders are born as well as made. Those who develop such quality in their childhood definitely have a added advantage but with right guidance others can also develop these qualities. Leadership provides with the opportunity to lead. Especially it is important for college students to enroll themselves in leadership programs, as it helps them to learn and lead during their college years. Students go thorough complete transformation by attending such programs. It develop many attributes to their personality like it helps them to gain confidence, development of communication skills, expation of their network, getting management skills, development of problem solving skill, getting recognized, enhance resume and many more. Mr Chris Salamone formerly served as a faculty member at Loyola University Chicago School of Law and the National Institute of Trial Advocacy, and served as a leadership curriculum adviser at The University of Central Oklahoma. Chris Salamone works to improve the lives of young people around the world through his many philanthropic endeavors. To this end, he functions as chairman of the Lead America Foundation and extends a considerable amount of financial support to fund the education of 300 children in Haiti.


  • I really enjoyed this post. It succintly captures the essence of effective, and authentic educational leadership.


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