Written by Sarah Hanks
Why does studying leadership matter? Why can’t I just do it? I’ve been a leader before… so, I’m ready.
What: In A Very Short, Fairly Interesting and Reasonable Cheap Book About Studying Leadership, Jackson and Parry state that, “Leadership scholars tend to be the token dreamers, the chronic optimists and the hopeless romantics” (p. 5). For me, studying leadership is inspiring because it’s personal. I study leadership because thinking deeply about leadership, my own experiences, and considering the opportunities I may have to lead in the future helps me to clarify who I am, what I believe, and frame many of the questions I have for the world. I also study leadership because one day I may have the opportunity to demonstrate effective leadership when the world really needs it.
So What: Before I returned to graduate school, I spent eight years working for the YMCA movement. In May 2006 I was asked to serve as the CEO of the YMCA at Washington State University; I was 23 years old. I didn’t apply for this position, but had I not accepted, the Y was faced with the possibility of closing its doors and dissolving its 115 year old charter. I didn’t know how to be a CEO. I didn’t know at the time that I’d be faced with legal concerns, collection notices (and no money to make payroll, much less pay the bills), dwindling community support and frustrated members. In fact, I didn’t know what “leadership” really meant.
I did know, however, that closing our doors was not an option. Dissolving a legacy more than century in the making wasn’t going to happen on my watch. Closing the door of opportunity for the kids and families we served was not leadership, so I thought.
So, I began studying leadership – I read almost every book I could find. I met and interviewed leaders I admired. I asked questions about leadership to anyone who would listen; sometimes I just needed to talk through my thoughts – no response necessary. This process helped me to discover and name many aspects of leadership, and to define how I would lead based on my values, the Y’s cause (context), and provided me with the framework to reflect on this unique experience.
During my tenure with the Y, I did close several program sites, lay off members of our staff team and reorganize our board of directors. Studying leadership didn’t uncover the steps needed to resolve our financial and programmatic crises, but the process did underscore the importance of executing the decisions I made with integrity and empathy. Studying leadership helped me to begin to see the total situation, not just the dwindling balance in the checking account. Studying leadership gave me confidence because with every mistake I made, I understood the importance of reflection and personal growth. I learned that the leaders I admired had stumbled, and fell a few times themselves. Studying leadership helped me to ask better questions – sometimes even the right questions – as I worked towards developing a sustainable, cause-driven organization.
Now What: During recent weeks I began making a list of questions I have about leadership. Some are inspired by articles, books, videos, and conversations; others I’ve pondered while driving or washing dishes.
Here are a few of my questions:
- What motivates someone to develop his or her leadership capacity?
- What does it mean to be an “effective” leader?
- What elements of leadership are truly constant across all (or most) situations?
- What would a pictorial or visual representation of my leadership philosophy look like?
- Why do I admire (fill in the blank leader’s name) as a leader?
- Was I an effective follower today?
Jackson and Parry stated, “The distinctive feature of leadership is that it would appear that the more we learn about leadership, the more we realize we have to and want to learn” (p. 8).
So, what questions do you have about leadership?