What Does Being a "Leader" Really Mean?

Fredrica Piphus Singletary is a student in the EdD in Organizational Change and Leadership program. She has a unique interdisciplinary background in business, psychology and education. As the program outcomes and training manager for an international nonprofit, Fredrica uses data to strengthen the operations of the organization’s programming; she also develops leadership training materials to ensure staff are equipped to carry out the mission and vision of the organization. When she is not studying or working, you can find Fredrica spending time with her husband, reading cheesy rom-com novels, or trying to change the world — one mentee at a time. You can connect with Fredrica on Linkedin. Here she shares a lesson on leadership.

As the first year of my doctoral journey in the Organizational Change and Leadership program comes to a close, I have to make a confession. Twelve months ago, I viewed leaders as heroic archetypes who enter organizations and then lead them through eras of greatness. They were people like Steve Jobs at Apple, Jack Welch at GE, and Indra Nooyi at PepsiCo. While such transformational leaders do exist, this year has taught me that leadership is often a quiet, dynamic journey that an individual must choose to undertake.

Let’s face it; leadership is not sexy. Early mornings. Late nights. Awkward conversations. “Sexy” is not the most scholarly of terms, but it summarizes society’s view of leadership. The media has attempted to personify leadership this way — think Miranda in The Devil Wears Prada or Olivia Pope in Scandal. Quite frankly, most of us have willfully accepted this grossly misguided image. However, months of research on leadership taught me that leaders do not just live in ivory towers. They drive change everywhere.

More specifically, my coursework has helped me uncover seven overarching themes about leaders.

1. Leaders are made, not born. 

At one time in history, people bought into the notion that leaders were born. This belief originated from the trait approach, which asserts that each of us is born with character traits and that a specific set of traits are associated with leaders. However, the trait approach has since been challenged by other researchers who point out that leadership is a reflection of the relationship between people in a social setting (Northouse, 2015). Leaders do not come from a homogenous group with an identical set of character traits. Instead, leaders are people who set out on a quest of character development as they guide those around them toward a common goal.

2. Leaders are role models.

It may be cliché, but leaders truly are role models. Whether positive or negative, ethical or unethical, people actively monitor their words and actions. American basketball legend Michael Jordan once said, “Earn your leadership every day.” Earning leadership daily requires setting an example every day. There are no off days in leadership; teams in all environments depend on their leaders to be consistent and reliable — not perfect.

3. Leaders embrace conflict.

Disagreements make many people uncomfortable, but leaders understand that conflict can result in progress. International businesswoman and writer Margaret Heffernan argues in her critically acclaimed TED-Ed talk “Dare to Disagree" that the greatest research teams, relationships and businesses encourage people to deeply disagree.

4. Leaders fail often.

In The Innovator’s DNA, the leaders of organizations like Amazon, Apple and Google openly express that embracing failure separates their organizations from conventional companies. Take a second to take that in. Failure has value. Not only do leaders fail, but they also fail often. Each failure is used as an opportunity to learn, develop and contribute to another promising idea. Whether you are a kindergarten teacher or a pilot, at some point in your career you will fail, and you will have the opportunity to learn from that failure.

5. Leaders are change agents, not magicians.

While leaders cannot wave a magic wand and rid the world of its many perils, they can take strategic steps toward changing their communities. Karl Lindgren-Streicher, a history teacher at Hillsdale High School in San Mateo, California, is a powerful example of how teachers can be change agents. In his TEDx Talk, he challenges his peers to fix the “broken education system” through a discussion of curriculum and sharing.

6. Leaders are human.

We are guilty of expecting the leaders in our lives to be infallible. However, leaders make mistakes. They have emotions, and their emotions are sometimes expressed in ways that make others uncomfortable. Guess what? That is normal. Leaders’ ability to emote and empathize with others speaks to their emotional intelligence, which is an invaluable interpersonal skill.

7. Leaders are purposeful.

Instead of being reactionary, leaders are purposeful and intentional. By pausing to listen and assess the situation before giving directives, leaders are able to effect greater change. Retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal explains the importance of being purposeful in his TEDx Talk “Listen, Learn Then Lead.”

“How does a leader stay credible and legitimate, when you haven’t done what the people you’re leading are doing?” McChrystal says during his talk, in which he offers up a leadership challenge on the importance of reverse mentoring.

Now, before discounting yourself, because you never thought you could be like King Leonidas of Sparta in the movie 300, snap back to reality and recall this list. You don’t have to be a courageous soldier or a business tycoon to be a leader. You just have to be willing to take the journey to lead as only you can.

You can start your journey by completing a failure resume. Yes, a failure resume. One of the most sobering and liberating moments of my life was writing a failure resume during one of my first classes in the Organizational Change and Leadership program. Try it for yourself.

Write a list of moments, projects, initiatives or interactions that you cringe just thinking about and thoughtfully consider how you have grown from those experiences or how you have actively avoided dealing with them. Whatever the case may be, use your failure resume as an opportunity to learn more about your leadership style and ways you can develop and avoid reoccurring unproductive behaviors and habits. We each have to start somewhere.

Learn more about the EdD in Organizational Change and Leadership.