Five things leadership is NOT
by Rob Jenkins

Social media is awash in pithy quotes about leadership, all trying to capture—in 280 characters or less—exactly what leadership means. Of course, they can’t. Leadership is far too complex to be summed up in a few words, however memorable.

Blog posts are better; at least writers can go into some detail, offering a new perspective or clarifying a key point. That can deepen our understanding of leadership and of ourselves as leaders.

In The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders, Karl Haden and I have contributed our share to the leadership literature. However, in this post, I’d like to flip the script and talk about what leadership is NOT.

It’s not a magical ability. We sometimes refer to “born leaders” as if leadership were an innate ability—like musical talent or athletic prowess—that some people have while others don’t. If that were true, there would be precious few leaders.

Fortunately, it’s not. One of our fundamental assumptions in The 9 Virtues is that ANYONE can learn to be an effective leader. Leaders, to borrow from Harry Potter, are not analogous to wizards, while everyone else is just a hopeless muggle. Leadership is real-life “magic” all can master.

It’s not a gimmick. For all the good social media does, it has also created a kind of “quick fix” mentality. We constantly see posts or tweets promising to reduce our belly fat, strengthen our relationships, or improve our personal finances if we just do “this one thing.”

The discipline of leadership is not immune. Yet most of us understand, whether intuitively or from long experience, that there is no “one thing” we can do to become better leaders overnight. We Improve our leadership by improving ourselves through a lifetime of hard work and dedication.

It’s not a quick fix. Sometimes we assume that if we just do what the leadership mavens tell us, we’ll experience dramatic, immediate improvements.

That’s only partly true. Following wise counsel will indeed make you a better person and a better leader. It just takes time. Lots of time. Years, in many cases. But the sooner you start acting on all that good advice, the sooner you’ll see results.

It’s not a license to bully. Another common misconception is that leaders get to tell everybody else what to do. Too many pursue leadership positions for that reason alone—so they can be “the boss.”

In truth, effective leadership actually involves teaching, persuading, and setting an example. Those who elbow their way into leadership positions are rarely effective and usually don’t last.

It’s not about you. If you want to be a leader just so you can achieve your own goals, you’re in for a rude awakening. Effective leadership isn’t about your goals; it’s about helping others achieve theirs. Great leaders understand that, when everyone succeeds, they succeed.

Ken Blanchard called this “servant leadership.” But the idea dates back to Socrates and Jesus Christ, who understood that service isn’t just an aspect of leadership; leadership IS service.

Rob Jenkins

Rob Jenkins has spent 31 years in higher education as an administrator and teacher. A regular contributor to The Chronicle of Higher Education and other publications, Rob has written extensively on leadership and related topics.

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