Leadership is Everything

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My colleague Ozzie and I just finished presenting our paper on school leadership at the UNESCO conference. I have now read (or at least skimmed) over 80 articles on leadership, focusing mostly on transformational leadership. Transformational leadership focuses on people rather than systems, rules, or policies. Leaders develop and articulate a compelling vision and then motivate and inspire, not intimidate or force, followers to realize that vision together.

This paper is personal for me – partly because I’ve had the privilege of serving as a principal and now supporting principals – but mostly because I, like many others, have suffered as a result of leadership that was strictly unilateral with swift and heavy-handed consequences for stepping out of line.

More insidious than the external punishment for disobeying is the internal suffering. Even now, there are residual effects – occasional fear and anxiety and lasting painful memories. I am an exception, meaning the draconian leadership practices affected me more than most. But there is a mountain of research to tell us, unequivocally, that fear, intimidation, and anxiety over time will deteriorate emotional and mental health, as well as cognitive capacities.

And that’s where leadership comes into play.

Leaders have the ability to uplift or tear down, promote cooperation or competition, make room for failure or ridicule, encourage creativity and innovation or invoke fear of challenging the status quo, and the sum of all those smaller actions will ultimately create a life-giving culture or a toxic one.

Leaders are in no way more important than their fellow colleagues, but they are more responsible for the conditions of the workplace than any other member of the organization.

And that’s why I say leadership is everything. Leadership will determine whether the core workforce, the people on the ground doing the real work every single day, will be provided with the conditions to maximize their potential or if fear and anxiety will drive their decisions.

A common definition of leadership is the influence a leader exercises over others’ practices and behaviors. And a central question is: How do leaders go about influencing others?

There are dozens of leadership models and research on which of those models is most effective in specific contexts. In our paper, Ozzie and I compared the impact of two different types of leadership: transactional and transformational in school contexts. Here is a brief comparison of the two models courtesy of Peter Northouse:


Transactional leadership makes up the majority of leadership models. There is an exchange between leader and follower: politicians promise something in exchange for a vote, managers promise a bonus in exchange for higher sales. The basis of the relationship is rooted in the exchange between the two parties.


Transformational leadership is the process of engagement and connection between people that raises the level of motivation and conviction in both the leader and follower. The leader’s ultimate goal is to help the followers reach their fullest potential, as defined by the followers (not by the leader).


Of course, these leadership models do not have to be mutually exclusive. There is a fluid spectrum of practice, and leaders typically display behaviors from both models at different times; and some leaders practice an integrated model. But one of these models typically constitutes the foundation of a leader’s beliefs and thus their correlating actions. And that’s what I’m going to focus on in the next few paragraphs – the foundation underlying leaders’ practices. To do that, we need to think more about the differences between the models.

First, transactional leadership. Transactional leaders may focus on relationships with individuals within their organization, but they do not have to for the model to be successful. That’s because the foundation of the transactional leadership model is the exchange, and the exchange remains constant whether the leader develops individual relationships or not. Kuhnert and Lewis found that transactional leaders can become very powerful very quickly, more so than with other leadership styles, because the terms of the exchange are unilateral, meaning the followers do not have input; they either accept or decline. For followers who accept the terms, it is in their best interest to do exactly what the leader says, in order to receive what they were promised (1987).

Transformational leaders, on the other hand, inspire people by providing a compelling vision, rather than rewards and punishments (Bartram & Casimir, 2007). Key to the success of transformational leaders is finding the people who believe in that vision – not because the followers necessarily find the leader inspirational, but because they find the message inspirational. However, this is not a unilateral approach to leadership. It is the interactions between all members of the organization that inspire everyone to higher levels of conviction, motivation, and commitment.

Several authors have suggested that emotional intelligence predisposes leaders to use transformational leadership practices instead of transactional ones. One scholar defined emotional intelligence as the ability of a person to join intelligence, empathy, and emotions to enhance thought and understanding of interpersonal dynamics (Mayer, 2008).

Interestingly enough, findings from a seven-year longitudinal study found that emotional intelligence was a stronger determiner than intellect and all other managerial competencies in predicting career success and advancement (Dulewics and Higgs, 2003).

When a leader practices high levels of emotional intelligence, trust is more present in the organization. The last post I wrote focused on trust, so I’ll be brief on this point. Here are a few excerpts to share:

“The topic of trust is both intriguing and elusive. The idea of trust is hard to define but we certainly know when it is missing. We notice trust as we notice air, only when it becomes scarce or polluted (Baier, 1986). Sadly, when trust is low, most people perceive danger and go into a self-protective mode; they personalize everything and assess risks in dealing with everyone, tending to cast themselves as the intended recipients of other people’s harmful actions (Reina & Reina, 2006).”

Thinking again about the differences between transactional leadership and transformational leadership, I read an article on compliance that I believe is relevant to the differing styles. Balay and Bursalioglu did research on organizational commitment, and they discovered three levels of commitment between individuals and their respective organizations:

  • Compliance: Compliance is the first stage of commitment. It represents the superficial commitment. The individual is in expectation of reward or fear of punishment to fulfill the duties.


  • Identification: Identification is the second stage of commitment. In identification, individuals identify the impact others have on them and the opportunity to maintain relationships with others.


  • Internalization: Internalization is the final stage of engagement. It refers to the mutual harmony of the individual and organizational values. The individual accepts the organization’s values and norms as their own, without coercion or intimidation.

Not surprisingly, high levels of compliance are associated with unilateral leadership styles, and internalization is associated with relationship-based models.

Connecting the research to my own experience –

I know firsthand what it feels like to work in an organization where compliance is valued above all else. I know all too well the repercussions of disobeying. I know how it feels to be beaten down. I know the toll it takes on your mental health and the damaging long-term effects. And I know with certainty that I am not alone in my experience.

I share all of this to say I believe there is a better way to lead, a better way to run an organization, a better way to treat people. And I write to implore those in leadership roles (and those who will one day be in leadership roles) to think about the leader you currently are and the leader you ultimately want to become. Because there is so much beauty and possibility when we see people as individuals with unique strengths who can shape and strengthen our organization, and as people who deserve, by virtue of their humanity, respect and dignity.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Ben

    Spot on as always. This makes me think about the intrinsic motivation i try to instill in my students. Clearly they are not at the point where true intrinsic motivation can be expected, but I think the sooner they can be pushed to be self-led learners, the more successful (and happier) they will be later in life.

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