Of my 37 years in education, I spent 21 in a leadership position (assistant principal, principal, district technology coordinator, personnel director, and assistant superintendent). During those 21 years, I continuously searched and researched for ways to improve as a leader. Sometimes I was lucky and found the answers I was looking for, but more than often I learned the answer through hard knocks and bruises. I learned many lessons about leadership, but probably the most important was that leadership is not an exact science, and there are no “silver bullets.” Believe me, I have looked relentlessly for that one special something that would miraculously transform me into the leader that everyone would die for in the heat of battle. I never found it, but yet I continued to search.
Over the years, I looked everywhere for inspiration. I read books about leadership, went to conferences to hear the leadership experts speak, and watched hours of videos about leadership. I would sit on the edge of my seat listening, hoping to catch that one magical word or phrase that would set my world on fire. However, it never failed that I would be led to the brink of finally grasping the “holy grail” of leadership only to have the golden carrot suddenly wrenched from my grasp. It was always the same; the secret the leadership gurus always promised in their promotional literature never materialized. I would sign up for a conference with a nationally recognized leader promising to reveal the secret of great leadership, I would rush to the book store to purchase the latest leadership book with the newest road map to success, or I would breathlessly watch a motivational video proclaiming I could be as dynamic and successful as the speaker in the video only to realize once the adrenalin from all the hype had subsided, that I was still me. I was not that great speaker expounding his exploits and successes from a stage in front of hundreds of people, I was not a person who could follow someone else’s road map to success, and I was not a dynamic charismatic superstar selling millions of dollars in motivational videos on leadership – I was me.
In the unlikely event, a leadership secret of some sort was revealed, it never had lasing impact. It was usually only good enough to make me feel like a somebody – like a leader – for the life of the presentation and maybe an hour or so afterwards. Ultimately, the newly discovered leadership secret enshrouded in lights and magic resulted in frustration for me. I found the high energy presentations steeped in the robes of evangelism to be entertaining, but for the most part not very practical or even sensible. The secrets that the leadership gurus made look so effortless and simple was as far as I was concerned a fabrication, a product of smoke and mirrors. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not speaking against or bashing motivational speakers on leadership or leadership books or motivational videos, I enjoy them all, and I have usually learned something from each and every one of them, but their “feel good,” “fist pounding,” “larger than life,” “awe inspiring,” formulas for success were for me little more than a “sugar rush” with little sustaining substance. Their secrets – if they actually revealed one at all – left me groping in the dark for leadership answers that were relevant to my life. Therefore, I usually left such events frustrated and wondering if a secret to leadership actually existed at all.
It took years, but I finally made the connection; I finally discovered the secret. It had been there in front of me from the beginning, but in my search for something “life changing” or “earth moving” I had failed to recognize it. What I discovered was something I had known from the beginning, but I had been too hard headed to accept as the truth. What I found was what I had feared most – there is no secret to great leadership. It is not a sword pulled from a stone. It is not hereditary. It is not an invisible magic cloak. There is nothing sacred about leadership at all; it is simply persistent hard work and common sense.
Actually, I had known this for years. My father actually broke the news to me when I was in my teens, but like most teens, I did not put a whole lot of stock in anything my father said. He taught me that you will sometimes meet people who are smarter or more talented than you are, but you should never meet someone who can outwork you. He said the only man he feared was a smart man with a work ethic, and if such a man existed and had common sense to boot, you might as well say, “Yes sir, boss,” and move out of his way. According to him, hard work and common sense were all a man needed to climb a mountain. I never knew just how wise my father was until I became a school administrator years later. Although he had never supervised more than one or two people at any one time in his life, I learned more about leadership and making decisions from him than I ever learned from any leadership conference or leadership video. He taught me that making a decision required three things: (1) knowing why the fence was built before you tear it down; (2) understanding decision making priorities – (In education, this equates to doing what is best for kids first, and taking care of everything else second); and (3) common sense.
However, in spite of what my father had to say, the same truth can be applied for him as applied to the leadership gurus – there is nothing sacred about leadership. What worked for my father may not work for anyone else, or what worked for the guy on the stage, may have little impact on the success of Joe the Principal in the real world. Therefore, leaders are left to discover mainly through trial and error what works and does not work for them. They must understand and accept that there are no shortcuts to being a good leader. However, I encourage anyone with the desire to lead to read as many books and articles as possible, attend conferences, and view as many videos as possible. Although, I highly doubt any earth shattering secrets will be revealed, it is nevertheless crucial for a leader to make leadership a learning journey, in which he or she continuously collects information, tips, and advice that will empower him or her to be a better leader.
©Jack Linton, April 14, 2014