I developed a dislike for all things Duke Basketball in the spring of 1992. I sat in stunned silence as Christian Laettner stomped around the basketball court (and Kentucky players) after he drained a near miraculous shot to stun the Wildcats in the NCAA tournament. Three years later I was taking an unhealthy amount of delight in Duke’s fall from the upper echelon of college basketball. Coach Mike Krzyzewski (Coach K) took a leave of absence to recover from back surgery. Duke languished under the direction of assistant coach Pete Gaudet who went 4-15 as the interim coach. However, rumors of Duke’s demise were greatly exaggerated. Since Coach K’s return, Duke has experienced unprecedented success returning to five Final Fours and winning three national championships. They are a model of sustained excellence in the basketball world, and it is a credit to Krzyzewski’s leadership.
Quality leadership is critical to the success of any organization. Duke is a prime example as the ‘94-’95 team was 9-3 with Coach K, and 4-15 without him. Today, businesses and organizations pay Krzyzewski tens of thousands of dollars to speak to their employees and inspire similar success. We have all observed and experienced great leadership, but why is it so tough to replicate? What universal qualities do transformational leaders possess?
They are Unique
To quote William Shakespeare, “To thine own self be true.” You can hire a number of talented leaders to speak to your organization, but it certainly doesn’t guarantee success. I do not believe you can take guiding principles and philosophies of others and adopt them as your own. Philosophies, beliefs, and leadership practices have to be developed by personal conviction, failure, experience, research, and reflection. You have to utilize your unique personality and talents to become a transformational leader. It is impossible to recognize and harness the unique talents of those you lead if you fail to do the same on a personal level.
They Build Capacity
Great leaders do not see themselves as the all knowing fount of knowledge. They are confident in their abilities and not threatened to bolster leadership within their organization. They build relationships with those they work with and help them utilize their strengths and talents. Unfortunately, we have all experienced leaders who seek to promote themselves by limiting others. A transformational leader isn’t someone who gives orders, they empower those they work with by cultivating and sharing leadership opportunities.
They Understand You Can’t Please Everyone
Leaders who strive for continual improvement understand it is impossible to please everyone. Dynamic leaders establish priorities aligned with the mission and vision of their organization. In a school setting the mission is to best serve students, parents, and the community. They also are careful to avoid marginalizing their staff to accomplish their mission. While it is impossible to please everyone, it is not impossible to communicate that everyone within an organization is valued and has a voice. Effective leaders value feedback and listen to concerns. I have found that when people are upset they typically do not have accurate information. Leaders who empower others through shared decision making often make sound decisions for the right reasons. They also make themselves available to genuinely listen to concerns and communicate with their staff. However, they stand by decisions that are best for their organization, even if it upsets a few individuals.
They Understand the Job is Important BUT Don’t Take Themselves Too Seriously.
Those in leadership positions have to take their job seriously while avoiding taking themselves too seriously. A leader must understand that many people in an organization are depending on them, but not dwell on it. An uptight leader can create an unnecessary divide between themselves and their staff. Leaders should be confident, organized, and reliable. They should also be approachable and convey that they enjoy their job. A leader who enjoys what they do bolsters morale and allows others within the organization to enjoy their work. It’s hard to relate to someone who seems overstressed, uptight, and unavailable. I also believe effective leaders make time for themselves. They exercise, eat a healthy diet, and take time to recharge their batteries through rest and relaxation. Leadership is a marathon, not a sprint. People who fail to take care of themselves are at risk of experiencing burnout. It’s hard for others in an organization to enjoy their job when their leader is unhappy.
They Balance Leadership and Management
Effective leaders prioritize people over managerial tasks, but they make sure the mundane is completed efficiently. This is a tough tightrope to walk, but great leaders prioritize and structure their day to ensure attention is given to critical activities. In an educational setting these include conducting walkthroughs, spending time with students, planning professional development, and monitoring curriculum and instruction. They understand that emptying the mailbox, returning phone calls, and checking email must be completed, they just ensure these tasks aren’t given priority throughout the day.
Just as I have forgiven Christian Laettner, I have also learned to forgive myself when I fail to live up to these standards. I don’t believe leadership is a mystery, but it is difficult. It requires patience, compassion, skill, and persistence. There are many days I fall short, but I try to be the best version of myself each day. I also believe it is important to help others be their best as well.