Home Concepts Concepts of Leadership Addressing the Irony: Three Styles of Leadership

Addressing the Irony: Three Styles of Leadership

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We find that this accumulation of prestigious credentials is found not only in the ancient world of Alexander, but also in contemporary society. Men (and women) who have graduated from such American universities as Harvard, Yale or Stanford are assumed to be not only prepared for leadership but also, in some way, deserving of leadership. They have studied hard in high school (supposedly), which enabled them to be selected to a highly competitive college or university.

We see this respect (even “reverence”) for a prestigious education in the election of many recent American presidents. They graduated (undergraduate or graduate school) from either Harvard or Yale (Clinton, both Bushes, Obama). The irony is that this prestigious education has rarely been directly devoted to the acquisition of leadership skills—usually because the assumption is made that leadership can’t be taught. Only character, discipline, and broad-based knowledge can (perhaps) be taught or inculcated. This is often identified as a “liberal arts” education or, in previous times, as the form of education that was becoming to a “gentleman” or “gentlewoman.”

Even when a man or woman is not formally educated and prepared to become a leader, he or she may attain this status as a result of substantial experience in the field or organization. What kind of experience seems to be important? We tend to value both breadth and depth of experience. We look for wisdom in someone who has “seen it all”—meaning that he or she has not remained in one place for many years, doing only one thing repeatedly. Twenty years of experience is not assigned much validity if this person has learned everything in one year and simply repetitively enacted this year of experience for twenty years.

We also tend to look for wisdom among those who can reflect back on and articulate their rich experiences. They are often brilliant storytellers, even if they usually remain rather quiet (unless asked to provide advice or guidance). These men and women often are natural (and informally designated) mentors. They enjoy teaching those who are younger or less experienced. They take great delight in seeing other people succeed as a result of sharing their expertise and tend to view these younger or less experienced people as protégés rather than rivals. We talk in psychology about the shift in attention from personal success (one’s own accomplishments) to a sense of collective significance (the accomplishments of other people or one’s family, group or society).

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