HELP WANTED: An exceptional leader who desires to make a positive and lasting impact on the lives of others. This individual must be able to: work well under stress; collaborate with others; manage and lead; inspire and motivate; and yield results. The ideal candidate will demonstrate the following attributes:
- High moral standards
- Strict personal ethics
- Executive energy
- Exceptional organization skills
- Artful communication skills
It’s difficult to find individuals who meet these criteria; isn’t it? Over the years we’ve gotten used to settling for less than the very best. Sometimes we settle because we’re in a hurry to fill a position; other times we’re more focused on saving a few bucks so we hire someone less qualified, less experienced, less committed, and less successful. In some instances, individuals come along who possess few of the skills we’re looking for, but they are charismatic and convincing, only to leave a path of destruction for others to clean up. Regardless of the reason, we eventually we pay a price for not insisting on hiring the very best leaders.
There actually is one individual who meets all the criteria above—it’s Robert Frances Kennedy. In fact, he was described in this way by his brother, President John F. Kennedy, in an interview with Newsweek magazine in early 1963 (Matthews 2017). In respectful observance of his tragic death this week in 1968, I think it’s important that we reflect on what true leadership is. We need more leaders today like Bobby Kennedy, and we need to be teaching leadership skills in our P-12 schools to nurture those qualities in our young people so they in turn can fill important societal roles in the future. President Kennedy said that anybody can have ideas—the problem lies in actually making them happen. Helping students to identify problems, develop ideas for solving those problems, and then taking action to yield results are important skills that schools should build into their curriculum starting in kindergarten.
Since my field is education, that is the lens through which I look most often. But I think real leaders probably possess many of the same attributes, skills, and dispositions regardless of which sector they serve in. Specifically:
In addition to building a vision for the future, developing a strategic plan, and setting high but attainable expectations, a leader’s major role is to motivate and inspire others; to model effective and ethical practice; and to facilitate growth in other team members.
I think there is a distinction between management and leadership, but they are intertwined on many levels. Those assigned to roles of responsibility must be adept at both.
Successful management is one piece of advancing the institution’s mission, but leaders must be careful not to micromanage because it can signal a lack of trust, breed confusion and ultimately, can productivity and success. Delegate responsibilities to others when appropriate but lead when necessary.
I believe an effective leader must be truly committed to academic excellence. By setting high expectations for ethical practice and academic outcomes, a leader can inspire others to achieve great things.
Likewise, an effective leader must have confidence. It is difficult to lead others when we don’t communicate that we truly believe the path being taken is the right one.
An effective leader must ensure proper recognition of other team members for their contributions, particularly in the context of a significant or challenging project. It’s necessary to motivate and inspire, but we must also show appreciation and recognition.
And finally, an effective leader must be prepared to make tough decisions. He or she must be willing and able to make the decisions necessary to ensure program quality, because if a leader fails in that arena he or she simply is not doing the job they were hired to do.
The bottom line is that an effective leader must wholeheartedly believe in the cause he or she is leading—must be completely committed to success—and must treat others with respect and appreciation.
For so many reasons, I truly wish Bobby Kennedy was still with us. But, we can still learn from him and others like him. We must commit to building a nation of true leaders. I think our way of life depends on it.
Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher is a national leader in educator preparation, accreditation, online learning, and academic quality assurance. An accomplished presenter, writer, and educator, she currently supports higher education, P-12 schools, and non-profit agencies in areas such as competency-based education, new program design, gap analysis, quality assurance, leadership, outcomes-based assessment, and accreditation through her company, Global Educational Consulting, LLC. She also writes about academic excellence and can be contacted for consultations through her blog site (www.robertarossfisher.com).
Matthews, C. (2017). Bobby Kennedy: A raging spirit. New York: Simon & Schuster.