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Why Are You a Successful Leader

“Problems cannot be solved with the same mind set that created them.”

-Albert Einstein

Over the years, I have heard numerous qualifiers and descriptors to define the type of leadership organizations require to be successful. Having studied leadership and management theories, I have some recollection of the history of ideas associated with leadership theory. In 1922, Max Weber wrote that leaders held power “by virtue of their positions.” Ideas about positional power, as opposed to later theories of personal power, dominated the early 20th century both in industry and in education. In 1926, Mary Parker Follett began to discuss power “with” as opposed to power “over” and may have been one of the first to discuss the importance of participatory management. In 1938, Chester Barnard began to use terms like influence and persuasion to describe appropriate leadership.

Other descriptors of leadership and power, like legitimate, reward, expert, referent and coercive were all used to understand the type of leadership necessary for organizations to move forward. The great theories of leadership, like the Great Man Theory, Theory X, Theory Y, situational leadership, contingent leadership, transactional and transformational have all been touted as important evolutions of leadership mirroring for the most part, the historical period in which business, industry and education found themselves in. Today is no different.

Of late, I have heard (again) the term transformational leadership but I think, at best, it is being redefined for a new era and at the worst is being misused. Fifty years ago, transformational leadership identified those leaders that collaborated with employees on needed change then worked on the change in tandem. This textbook definition still pretty much identifies the underpinnings of transformational leadership. Today, however, it seems the term is being used to identify leaders who are willing to take risks and take on the role of disruptive innovator. Just the other day I was giving a talk on leadership and someone identified my ideas as “transformational.”  “No,” I said. “I think they are less transformational and more entrepreneurial.”

Several months ago in preparing for some new work (and this website) someone asked me a couple of questions that caused me to do quite a bit of reflection. The person noted some successes I had along my leadership journey; organizations that had improved and were recognized on my watch, and innovations that I had apparently inspired (at least in their eyes). The question was this “Why were/are you a successful leader and have you ever thought about what category of leadership best describes you?”  It seemed unlikely to me that after years of leadership, I had never really spent any time considering these questions. I guess the time had come to reflect on who I was, what I did (do) and whether or not there was a rationale or categorization to my leadership, outside of luck of course. (I’m reminded of a good friend who always jokingly states “even a blind squirrel gets a nut every once in a while.”)

21st century drivers of organizational improvement are very much the same as they have always been: largely economic. While educators point to test scores and curriculum, I would argue that all of those ideas are being driven by economic conditions and thus shaped by them as well. The difference now, however, is that the economy has changed dramatically after the great recession. We find ourselves now in an economy where knowledge is now a commodity, something to be valued, bought and sold.

Economic drivers are now about options, quality and customization. Small business drives the economy. My good friend and entrepreneurial champion Brent Sapp calls these small business entrepreneurs the “Economy Heroes” and he is absolutely right. If these leaders and company survive, then our economy will survive. And many think (I included) that public education is quickly becoming a commodity, if not one already. If entrepreneurial educational leaders thrive, so will education.

All of this suggests that a new kind of leader can emerge. This new leadership archetype should have as its focus an entrepreneurial spirit, one that rejects the status quo and revels in chaos and redesign. We are beginning to see cracks in the armor of traditionalism in education. If we want to make the breakthrough necessary, leaders need to rethink and reimagine how organizations are led and how they evolve. They need to become entrepreneurial in their thinking. As one of my favorite CEOs, Jack Welch once said, (paraphrased) sometimes you need to blow it up to make it better. If your boss is intimidated by your style, find a new boss.

Entrepreneurs posses a set of identifiable traits that allows them to champion the unknown, create commodity knowledge and spin that knowledge into profitability. These traits define entrepreneurial leaders in business and could very well define them in the realm of education. While it is difficult, maybe even dangerous, to try and categorize these leaders, there are some traits that many seem to agree upon. Thomas Smales, co-founder of FE International, suggests several traits that are somewhat common among true entrepreneurs. You can read Mr. Smales’ article here. I have taken some liberties with his ideas to connect them to our world of education.

Entrepreneurs set clear goals and possess the drive and determination to create systems and processes to meet and usually exceed those goals. The goals that business set are not unlike the goals set in education. Achievement gaps, finances, programs, practices and policies can all benefit from a leader who is determined to set large goals and create a systematic approach (strategic) to achieve them while simultaneously having the tactical ability to get it done. An unyielding determination to bring vision to reality is absolutely essential in entrepreneurial leadership.

Entrepreneurs take risks – a lot of them. They do not fear risk, as they understand that without it there is no reward.  Many entrepreneurs create start-up companies with a fraction of the finances they need to do so. Sound familiar? In the absence of these funds, these leaders risk it all to bring a product to market and prove a concept, which is the only way to increase potential investment. Entrepreneurs, then, do not see finances as a barrier to success. They find a way around, over or under it. They take whatever financial support they have and figure out a way to make it work. So must we. This is not to say we must settle for the ever-dwindling support from governmental agencies, but rather, become more entrepreneurial in our leveraging of financial support for our schools and use that capital wisely. Proof of concept, ROI, evidence, etc., should all be part of our daily lexicon. Stop authorizing purchase orders for software programs until someone tells you what the return on investment will be.

Entrepreneurial leaders have great confidence. Regardless of the conditions they face, like precious gems, they mine success. Both challenge and failure are craved and embraced. Learning about new systems, processes and ideas never stops. This interesting weaving of confidence, the embrace of failure and the craving for learning positions these types of leaders ahead of most others. They are not bound by traditional thinking or old paradigms, but rather, continuously break down their products and plan only to rebuild them stronger, more durable and most importantly, more profitable. These ideas translate well into the business of education. We have challenges that should not be feared, but embraced. We must learn that failure is simply part of the process and stop worrying about what will be printed in the local paper. With continuous learning and application of these ideas, the business will grow.

Entrepreneurs are agile and adaptable. In their business, they have little knowledge of what is next, therefore, they learn how to react, respond and adapt to fluid situations and changing planes and fields. Adaptability allows a leader to respond to any situation quickly thus almost guaranteeing the organization moves forward. Chaos theory is the rule of the day. Entrepreneurs surround themselves with detail people while they paint the picture of the vision.

Entrepreneurial leaders are passionate. They have passion for what they do, passion for their product and passion to succeed. This passion allows these types of leaders to enjoy what they do, understanding that there are times where there is little reward and little to celebrate. Entrepreneurs know how to sell and promote their business, regardless of the criticism that is thrown their way. They champion their cause and regardless of the present performance of their business, they sell, promote and support the vision for their organization. Their passion is infectious to anyone who comes in contact with them. Their passion comes with high-energy and can be intimidating to others. Not everyone thrives around an entrepreneurial leader, nor perhaps, should they.

Entrepreneurs work in the realm of the impossible, as a matter of fact, they thrive in it. It stands to reason that given where we are in public education and where we need to go, this type of leader may very well be what is needed in order to reinvent and re-imagine the business of education.

I guess those are my answers to those two questions.