The Leadership Conundrum: What Makes a Great Leader?
17 February 2023

‘If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.’ John Quincy Adams

What is it about the subject of leadership in general, and more recently, school leadership in particular, that has inspired the development of a publishing, research and information phenomenon that has become an industry in itself and a topic of discussion that sometimes raises more questions than it can answer. While it is easy to recognise poor leadership, it can be more difficult to determine precisely what it is that differentiates the best from the worst. Indeed, despite the abundance of leadership models, examples and theories, there is no generally accepted consensus as to what it is that makes a great leader.

At the same time, in a world that is increasingly based on information and knowledge the need for great leadership is growing. A burgeoning independent education sector has seen the demand for high quality leaders increase as these schools typically pursue continuous improvement and thus raise the bar regarding expectations and outcomes. Moreover, recent decades have seen significant changes with respect to the role and responsibilities of principals and other key school leaders. They have also seen unprecedented pressures on both the professional and personal lives of those individuals who take on these important positions. Principals are expected to operate in a setting in which schools have become sites of political and community focus and debate, complex legislative compliance and stakeholder involvement. In this context therefore, it is hardly surprising to find that such an exacting environment requires an enormous capacity for leadership which in many respects is more demanding than what is required in business. Evidence for this can be seen, for example, in the findings of the Hay Group study which compared the leadership qualities of two hundred head teachers in the United Kingdom with two hundred senior executives and concluded that: ‘Highly successful business executives would be extremely challenged to exert outstanding leadership in schools.’ The implications of such findings in terms of the demands now made on school principals are both significant and far-reaching and suggest that, in contrast to their business counterparts, successful school leaders not only need a broader range of abilities but the capacity to operate successfully in an environment that is both business focussed and influenced by what are often deep-seated and strongly held values and principles. As Graham Marshall, a Senior Fellow at Melbourne University’s Graduate School of Education has observed: ‘We now have clear evidence, both here and in the UK, that the school leadership role is more demanding – ‘more stretching’ is the term used – than the comparative role of business leadership.’[1]

Clearly, good leadership is essential to achieving results because it is leaders who establish and communicate a vision and set goals worth striving for. Leaders focus the efforts of their followers, harness their talents and energies, and encourage them to flourish. Leaders look to the future, setting goals and inspiring others to engage with their vision. They exemplify a range of behaviours that incorporate various styles and techniques aimed at achieving optimal results for the organisation and its employees. In the light of this, what follows aims to provide some insights into the art of leadership as understood by recognised authorities such as Robert Greenleaf, Daniel Goleman, John Kotter and others.

Founder of the modern concept of ‘servant leadership’, Robert Greenleaf’s ideas were influenced by his experiences over several decades working at the American Telephone and Telegraph Company. Believing that the power-centered authoritarian leadership style so prominent at the time was not serving the business well, he retired at sixty to found the Centre for Servant Leadership.

Based on the philosophy that to serve is the sine qua non of successful leadership, for Greenleaf, leadership ought to be about serving the needs of others. To get the best out of people, he identified ten characteristics he believed to be essential to the development of a servant-leader: listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualisation, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people and building community. [2]  In many respects then, it is perhaps the servant leader model that may well be one that resonates with the principles, aspirations and culture of independent schools.

Although the personal styles of successful leaders may range from the subdued and analytical to the charismatic crusader, different situations require different types of leadership. Emotional Intelligence guru, Daniel Goleman argues that the most effective leaders have one thing in common: a high degree of emotional intelligence. Without emotional intelligence, other attributes (such as good ideas, an analytical mind, technical skills) are insufficient to enable the person to be an effective leader. Specifically, his five elements of emotional intelligence are, first a high degree of self-awareness – something that is demonstrated in self-confidence, realistic self-assessment, and a self-deprecating sense of humour. Secondly, self-regulation as exemplified in the ability to control or redirect disruptive impulses and moods, the propensity to suspend judgement and to think before acting. This characteristic is evident in trustworthiness and integrity; comfort with ambiguity; openness to change. Thirdly is motivation. Understood to be a passion to work for reasons that extend beyond a quest for money or status, motivation is manifested in a propensity to pursue goals with energy and persistence and in the leader’s strong drive to achieve; optimism (even in the face of failure); organisational commitment and an unflagging energy to improve. According to Goleman, the one trait virtually all leaders have is motivation. These individuals are driven to achieve beyond expectations, both their own and everyone else’s. The first sign of their motivation is a passion for what is being done. They seek out creative challenges, love to learn and take great pride in a job well done, invariably displaying a strong desire to do things better. Empathy is Goleman’s fourth attribute and is personified in the leader’s ability to understand the emotional make-up of other people. In practice, he believes, empathy means thoughtfully considering the feelings of others when it comes to making intelligent decisions and is particularly important today as a component of leadership. And finally, the ability to manage relationships and build networks. These socially skilled people tend to have a wide circle of acquaintances and a knack for finding common ground with many different people – a flair for building rapport. Able to manage teams, they are good persuaders, knowing when to make an appeal to reason or an emotional plea. People seem to know intuitively that good leaders are adept at building and sustaining positive relationships.

In Good to Great, Jim Collins’ thought provoking study of ‘why some companies make the leap and others don’t’, Collins argues that ‘good to great’ businesses are invariably led not by ‘high-profile leaders with big personalities who make headlines and become celebrities’ but by people who might appear ‘to have come from Mars. Self-effacing, quiet, reserved, even shy – these leaders are a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.’ A fascinating example of such leadership can be found in Collins’ analysis of the fortunes of Kimberly-Clark. In 1971 in-house lawyer Darwin E Smith was appointed to the position of Kimberly-Clark’s chief executive. Despite being diagnosed with cancer shortly afterwards, over the next twenty-five years Smith’s leadership would see dramatic growth in the company’s profitability and position in the marketplace. Described as ‘a nearly perfect Level 5 leader’, Smith set out to ensure he had the right people in the right positions. In being prepared to make the hard decisions necessary to secure the company’s future, he changed the direction of Kimberly-Clark by moving away from paper mills and into a business based on customer-focussed consumer products.[3]

Entering the leadership debate, Harvard academic, John Kotter, proposed a new way of looking at leadership that would cause considerable controversy. Leadership and management he suggested are different. For Kotter, managers ‘promote stability’, leaders by contrast ‘don’t make plans; they don’t solve problems; they don’t even organize people. What leaders really do is prepare organizations for change and help them cope as they struggle through it.’[4] But is such a separatist approach to the matter of leadership applicable to schools, especially given the breadth and weight of responsibilities now resting on the shoulders of many principals.  Those of us who work in schools can see the complexities of this kaleidoscopic role – one that often requires dexterity in management as well as leadership. In the independent sector in particular, the school is a site of both stability and change. Tradition melds with change as principals navigate and manage the (sometimes conflicting) interests of the school community and its stakeholders. Concurrent to this, as a public figure the principal is expected to deliver on key performance indicators around observable requirements such as setting objectives, developing strategy, managing finances, maintaining and possibly growing enrolments, recruiting and retaining quality staff, creating performance cultures, actively engaging with stakeholders and professional peers and so on.

Ironically, public leadership such as that required from principals, necessitates a strong inner personal life that will cope with the scrutiny that comes with what has become a highly visible role. Principals need such personal strengths as courage and resilience as well as insight, diplomacy, dependability and honesty. Against a background of complex and at times conflicting demands, they need to establish their own clear and considered principles and values as the basis for their actions and decisions. In the end perhaps the foundation of great leadership is courage for as Churchill proposed: ‘Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities because it is the quality that guarantees all others.’

Sue Johnston

Director of Corporate Communications and Research


[1] Graham Marshall, ‘The Future of Educational Leadership’ in Leading the Education Debate, IARTV, Melbourne, 2003, p.259

[2] Robert Greenleaf, The Power of Servant Leadership. Paulist Press, San Francisco, 1998, pp. 5-8

[3] Jim Collins, Good to Great, Random House, London, 2001, pp.19-22

[4] John Kotter, ‘What Leaders Really Do’, Harvard Business Review, December 2001, p.3


Further Reading

 Adair, John, The Inspirational Leader: How to Motivate, Encourage and Achieve Success, Kogan Page, London, 2003

Brown, Brené, Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful connection and the Language of the Human Heart, Penguin, London, 2021

Clayton, Don, Leadershift, ACER Press, Melbourne, 2004

Cloud, Henry, Boundaries for Leaders: Why Some People Get Results and Others Don’t, Harper

Collins, New York, 2013

Collins, Jim, Good to Great, Random House, London 2001

Drucker, Peter, The Leader of the Future: New Visions, Strategies and Practices for the Next Era, Jossey Bass, California, 1996

Goleman, Daniel, ‘What Makes A Leader?’, in On Leadership, Harvard Business Review Press, Boston, 2011

Goleman, Daniel, Working With Emotional Intelligence, Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 1998

Greenleaf, Robert, The Power of Servant Leadership, Paulist Press, Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, 1998

Kotter, John, ‘What Leaders Really Do’, in On Leadership, Harvard Business Review Press, Boston, 2011

Loader, David, The Inner Principal, Falmer Press, London, 1997

Owen, Jo, Leadership Rules: Fifty Timeless Lessons for Leaders, Capstone, London, 2011

Singh, Arun and Mister, Mike, How to Lead Smart People, Profile Books, London 2019