Hard Work

Confusing Leadership and Role Models

Who is a leader? That question has become very loaded today. It has become politically incorrect to say that someone isn’t a leader, or doesn’t have leadership potential. The democratization of leadership has led to beliefs that anyone can be a leader.

The other night I was at a networking group (our group name is “The Profitable Broads”, which should tell you something about our membership), when a discussion about leadership began. One of the members said, “well, we’re all leaders here”.  It turns out that I was the only person at the table of that felt that she wasn’t a leader.

To which my friends all immediately replied, of course you are a leader. You teach young women. You lead in the classroom every day.  I still don’t buy it. And don’t assume that I am expressing false humility.  What my friends did was mistake role modelling for leadership.  I suggest that I am a role model in the front of the classroom. I teach, I coach and I encourage.  But leadership is more than teaching, coaching and encouraging. Leadership is about articulating a vision for an organization or group of people and influencing them in a positive way to achieve that vision together.  I’m just doing my job, not leading anyone.

And that is okay. I certainly commit acts of leadership occasionally, including educational and strategic leadership. But am I a leader? Certainly I can be a leader if I’m called. And I choose to be a leader in certain situations where I have a passion. But I believe that I’m an effective follower most of the time. I’m also a role model for my students. I try to model effective, productive workplace behaviour. But let’s face it, while good followers are not around in massive numbers, there are still a lot of good followers. It’s not particularly unique or special to be a good follower.

So, the idea of leader, that was once something that very few aspired to, is now assigned to everyone. I think that I can have more impact on our organization as an effective employee, whether taking the role as leader or follower. But no matter what role I’m undertaking, I want to a good role model.


7 replies »

  1. Colleen,
    Yet again you have challenged my thinking and added to the depth of thought regarding leadership. Your definition regarding leadership requiring a vision and the skill to ensure others achieve that vision is very accurate. Leadership continues to be extensively misunderstood and often applied poorly – your article helps to illuminate the differences in what people believe they are doing and what is actually being displayed/performed. Thanks again.
    PS – I love the sound of the profitable broads group!!!!

  2. Army doctrine for leaders requires that they are also a good role model for their subordinates. In most cases, the ratio of leader to subordinates in the Army averages not more than about 1:5, so there are a lot of leaders in the Army. Interestingly enough, the “expected standard” for a role model (synonyms with leader in the Army?) is rarely if ever defined.

  3. Perhaps the ratio of leader to follower depends on your definition of “leader”. I always include the idea of vision and goals as part of leadership – but that the individual leader is responsible for the development of the vision and goals (they lead the process of developing the vision and goals). I suspect that even in the army, the number of “leaders” by that definition would be somewhat smaller, than when using a much broader army definition. I guess that is why I wanted to talk about being a role model as a distinct activity.

    I agree with you (and the Canadian Army) that role modeling is a part of leadership, but in my opinion, it’s not the whole enchilada.

    Finally, it’s interesting that the “expected standard” for role model isn’t defined. It’s kind of hard to achieve the standard if you don’t know what you’re aiming for. I would assume that a good role model would model the values/behaviours that the organization espouses. That said, unless the organization promotes its value statements as an important measurable standard, its tough for employees to understand what role model means.

    Thanks for the provocative comment.


  4. “leadership is more than teaching, coaching and encouraging. Leadership is about articulating a vision for an organization or group of people and influencing them in a positive way to achieve that vision together. I’m just doing my job, not leading anyone.”

    Hi Colleen,

    I agree that “good” leadership is more than teaching, coaching and encouraging.” If that was all you did, you’d still be a great role model, I think. However, if you believe that leadership must include “articulating a vision” then I would prefer to adjust the statement again, to say that clearly “articulating a vision” is an aspect of “good leadership” and that the process of articulation becomes more clear, generally speaking, as we put words, sentences, paragraphs and discussions to the vision and its creation.

    If by “just doing your job” you are not concerned with “influencing your students in some positive ways” then you might not really be the role model I thought you were. ha ha By the way, your classroom of students is also an organization, although a smaller subset or the entire school organization, which is again a subset of the community of students, etc. However, it is highly likely that you are concerned about how your students behave together in your classroom, how they cooperate with you and one another, not to mention the quality of their work and their learning.

    So, if you don’t mind me saying, Colleen, it seems to me, that you are influential with how you run your classroom, you do have a vision that perhaps is unconsciously articulated and therefore, you are a leader. The only question I have for you at this time is, “can you improve upon the present level of your personal leadership?”

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comments. As I think about your perspective, I get what you are saying, that influence is critical in leadership. What I am concerned about is that we are conflating leadership with mundane, everyday aspects of every single job. When everyone is a leader, who is there to follow? I prefer to think of myself as an effective follower – doing a great job of articulating the vision that the college has set out, engaging my students and helping them achieve their goals.

      This is why the study of leadership is so slippery. No one agrees about the definition of leader. We don’t have a lot of persuasive evidence that leadership has a significant impact on organizational performance, nevermind an understanding of what leadership behaviours and traits are effective in various situations. So we end up debating based on individual opinions. While this creates stimulating discussions, I’m not sure that we are moving forward to a better understanding of the nature of leadership.

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