Why Studying Leadership Matters: What? So What? Now What?


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.

ImageDuring 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?   

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35 Responses to Why Studying Leadership Matters: What? So What? Now What?

  1. Katy Kelly says:

    I always wonder if my style of leadership is truly a form of leadership. Of course, I’ve been the generic leader in high school as head of a club or planning an event, but what I’m really interested in is art. I want to lead through my art, but I also want to know if that’s really leading. Can I let something I’ve created stand on its own to inspire people, and to make them think, or do I have to stand up with it? I’ve always thought that art should have its own story, whatever the beholder wants it to be, and because of that, I feel like I can lead though my artwork and let it speak for itself. Could this be my style of leadership?

  2. Anna Lehman says:

    My question about leadership is, How do you know when you have become an effective leader? We can all read books about leadership, takes classes, and even practice doing it, but what signs do we look for to know that what we are doing is the right thing? I guess this can possibly come from experience and practice. I think that being a good leader takes a lot of effort and hard work, but its possible.

    • Ethan Brown says:

      I agree with Anna almost entirely. While I also wonder at what point am I able to call myself an effective leader, I differ on that becoming a great leader takes countless effort and work. To me, true leadership is something that comes naturally over time through the standard trials and tribulations that affect our everyday lives. I recognize that this sounds like an apathetic response to defining leadership in oneself, however real-world scenarios provide for a chance to test and figure out ones beliefs and strengths on the run. In conclusion, I believe we can sufficiently call ourselves true leaders when we are presented with a wide array of complicated problems and are able to respond to these with utmost poise and confidence that we are doing what we truly believe is the correct solution regardless of what people say about us or our ideas.

    • Rachel E says:

      I agree with Anna. When you we really know whether we are an effective leader or not? This brings up back to the argument about whether or not leaders are born or learn. One can argue that if you are born a leader than you are probably naturally going to be an effective leader. On the flip side, if we learn to become a leader, then it requires that we learn how to become an effective leader. To me becoming an effective leader is more than just studying past effective leaders its actually experiencing it yourself. In my mind, your effort and successes determine your effectiveness.

    • Courtney Green says:

      I agree with Anna when she said “how do you know when you have become an effective leader?” To me an effective leader is someone who positively benefits a group of people and helps to accomplish a goal that betters the community, or environment around them. I think that everyone has the ability to lead. However, I think that leadership is a continuous process. Even if you are an effective leader, there is still more to learn to better yourself.

  3. Jasmine Porter says:

    I agree with Sarah’s statement that leadership is inspiring because it is personal. I believe that leadership is all about what you make of it. Although, I am still in the training for becoming a better leader I know that my great leadership will come to great use in the future. I agree that leadership is a learning process and and it enables you to reflect on your personal growth, values, and life experiences.

    • Catherine (Cate) Beach says:

      I feel the same way Jasmine. I have been in leadership positions before but I know that I am still continuing to grow in developing my specific skills. Leadership in any future will be a requirement at some time so as we grow to be leaders now, we will be even better leaders when we have the job thrust upon us. Everything about our leadership style reflects who we are, where we came from and how we have grown from the tough times in our lives.

  4. Daniel says:

    What’s the point where we cross from being a follower to a leader? With the democratic Y approach followers are given a fair amount of power to get things done how they wish. While the authoritarian style is pretty black and white, the other way is several shades of gray. Can we ever point to a specific time period and say “this is where I became a leader”? Or once we gain leadership status can we lose our “aura” and charisma later?

  5. emmahdouglas says:

    I often wonder if how it’s possible for me to judge if I am an effective leader. Is it through the tasks I accomplish? What about the way followers feel about me and my leadership style? Another question that I often think about is: Is there any specific time where I can say that I became a leader? I suppose that becoming an actual leader comes from years of practice, but then I find myself wondering if there is a specific point in those years where my leadership skills become mature and developed. I am tempted to say that it may not matter how many years I spend studying leadership; instead it is all about the content in those years.

    • Luke Carroll says:

      I definitely agree with Emma on this and I ask myself many of the same questions. I also agree with your last comment and relate to life in itself. Life is measured by how many years we have but I believe it should be measured by how much quality we have in those years. But to answer your question Emma I believe that there is no set point in our life where are leadership is totally matured and has no further room for growth but rather it is continually growing day to day from the things we experience the knowledge that we glean from class or just everyday life.

    • Grace Ellis says:

      I think you’re right about judging your success as a leader about the content – what you accomplished and helped others accomplish. I think you gauge your leadership progression by seeing how much positive change you help create in the world around you. I also believe that you never can say, “Now I’m a leader”, because I think you are never truly “finished” learning. Every experience makes you who you are, and the leadership experiences you have help you grow into a better leader. With regard to your question about the way followers feel about you, if people naturally gravitate toward you and trust you to lead them, you must be doing something they like, and you must be a person they believe in.

    • Lauren Nance says:

      My question about leadership was also how to judge if I’m being an effective leader. How do I know if I’m actually making an impact in someone’s life? Hopefully, if I am making a difference to someone it will show in their own lives and that is where I can get encouragement to keep going. I can see where it would get really frustrating though if you aren’t seeing positive results as you go. Such as, trying to lead a book drive and only two people donate books after you’ve spent so long planning and organizing the event. I just think it is really important for leaders to have determination to drive them when the going gets tough and eventually they will be rewarded in knowing if they are effective leaders or not.

  6. Jacob Clore says:

    My question concerns how I make a visual representation of what our leadership looks like. In class today, Sarah told us to make a visual representation of what our leadership looked like. I was simply dumbfounded. I struggle to define how successful I am as a leader; would I be able to draw how I feel on a piece of paper? Then I thought for a few minutes about how I led. I like to give advice to those who need it and I want to leave a lasting impression for those who will lead after me. Then it hit me. I love to run! How about I draw a shoe that represents leadership. When one person leaves a position, they leave all of the advice and experience with whoever fills their shoes! I felt pretty awesome. Anyway, I think Sarah’s story should be made into a movie because she led the Y even when its own members weren’t on her side. She kept her institution afloat even when it was extremely difficult and annoying. That is one example of how everybody can become a leader if they work hard enough at it. We can all answer our own questions if we just take the time to research the answers.

  7. Libby Howe says:

    I wonder whether or not others are more capable of identifying our leadership skills than we are. It is a common idea that introspection and self-evaluation are very difficult and are riddled with personality obstacles that shape our opinion of ourselves. These opinions can be drastically off base. Wouldn’t the followers be more apt to identify the way in which a specific leader can lead more effectively? We, as people, see everyone around us at all times but only catch glimpses of ourselves in mirrors and reflections in windows (we all take a look, don’t lie). It can only be expected that we understand ourselves less than we understand those around us based on the fact that we observe others all the time and almost never observe ourselves. While no one in my leadership class knows me well enough to do this, I think it would be interesting to see which leadership themes my best friend and closest companions think I exhibit and check them against what I came up with on my own.

    • Courtney says:

      I agree, I feel like those around me could come up with a much more uniform description of who I am and what my leadership abilities are as opposed to a bias opinion of who I think I am. Self-reflection is said to be a part of the leadership process, but if we only want to see good in ourselves it would be difficult to reflect upon a “perfect” individual whom “we see in the mirror”.

  8. Courtney says:

    Why is it that leadership is so complicated? Why can’t it just be leader and follower, like black and white? Everyone has a different perspective, meaning, style, philosophy. Why does leadership have to incorporate so much in just one person, it’s not like we can be this and that, its more this or that. In my eyes leadership is a service to others, but to someone else leadership cold be an abstract principle that guides their life. . .So why is leadership so complicated?

  9. Riley St. Pierre says:

    What percentage of people are actually true, effective, and good leaders and is it possible for someone to be a leader and not know it? I feel as though there are many good leaders but very few great leaders. For example, think of how many people have existed over the past 2000+ years (billions)…and how many of them in history books, etc…do we know or remember? How many of them were a great enough leader that they had a lasting impact on the world? Not many. I feel as though leadership isn’t just a trait but an instinct. I think people lead naturally and that it would be hard for someone to be a leader and not know it. You lead out of your desire to lead and your instinct to do so.

  10. Dixon Holland says:

    I always have wondered how I truly know what my style or form of leadership is. When I lead I think that I lead in a certain way, which is to always include others, and when it is needed, get the job done myself. I try to be on the Y approach of leadership as best as I can, but is that what other people think of my style of leadership? Do the ones who are invloved with me in the group think I lead in a different style then what I believe my style is? I may not exactly know my style of leadership unless others tell me, because I am not the one who notices how I act, I just act in how I see best fits.

  11. Carly Scullin says:

    I have always wondered how a person becomes a leader. Are some people just naturally born with a personality and vision that people will follow, or is a leader just some one who will just act on something. Why do people listen and follow leaders who are in political positions now? Every election citizens complain about who is in charge, who is running, and who might be running. Why do we elect these people into positions of power if we do not agree with them. All I know is that we have different types of leaders all over the world, and somehow they can have masses of people follow them without any questions.

  12. Lindsay DeMers says:

    I also think leadership is inspiring; I feel inspired all the time by everything around me, and I just want to go out and start being a leader. However, I don’t know how to be a leader now; I don’t even know if I’m capable, but I like to dream big and make things happen, and I want to inspire others. What does it take to be inspiring and move people to become involved and to believe they can accomplish great things?

  13. Cat Hauser says:

    I want to know how to become an effective leader, but I guess that is mostly based on what I actually want to do with my life. It could differ for anyone. I want to become an engineer and build wells in Africa but that style of leading might be different from someone who wants to be a teacher or own their own business. That means everyone has a different style of leadership so in the end, how effective can one leader actually be? And are you considered an effective leader if you only effect one person? You could change their life, but does that matter as much as someone who changes thousands of peoples’ lives? I have an answer to all these questions but how am I supposed to know if they are right? Pretty much, I just hope I am effective leader in my life and if I only effect one person, as long as they are better and happier because of it, I have done well.

  14. Allyson True says:

    I agree with the general question, how to does one know when they have become an effective leader? I mean, in class we can talk about different leaders and styles and past changes but how do we know what will make each of us a good leader? I think trial and error would let us know what techniques work for us, but that can hurt everyone else who is involved. I want to know if there is a way to find what works for us while also helping those around us to complete the common goal.

  15. Taylor McClain says:

    I often wonder at what point I make the transition from a group member to a group leader. Do I have to see myself as a leader in order to be one? Or am I a leader because other people consider me one? I also wonder, as I’m sure most people do, how effective I am as a leader. I firmly believe that leadership is about the establishment of a relationship between the leader and the followers. We just took a quiz to find out our strengths. I wonder if some of the great leaders of the past had taken the Strengths Finder quiz, what their results would have been. Are there certain strengths that are more common than others?

  16. David Bohn says:

    When I am asked, “what does leadership mean to you,” I give the generic response something along the lines of a person who exhibits traits that influence people and sets an example that people want to follow. I feel that we all know when we are working with an effective leader. There is a sense of agreement and a positive atmosphere that unites everyone. Many times we may be in leadership positions without knowing it, just leading by setting the example. The only was to really improve as a leader is through experience. Yes learning about styles and theories are certainly beneficial, but for us to develop/find our own leadership style and determine what works for us is through practice and experience.

  17. Jake Brown says:

    I really like the picture on the side of this article. I love success stories of people who understand that one person putting you down doesn’t mean its the end of the world. Challenges must be met and conquered in order to achieve the greatness we all strive for.

  18. Macy Kinder says:

    I think that studying leadership matters because it allows for people to grow an understanding of the different types of leadership styles and philosophies. By studying leadership people are able to develop their own personal, unique leadership approach by learning what is needed to be effective and what doesn’t work.

  19. Abigail Bartolome says:

    A major concern for me when I am trying to lead is that I might appear to be to pushy, or that I might lead people through fear, or even worse, I may step up as a leader by putting them down. As silly or extreme as that may seem, I do worry that I may be trying to hard to distinguish myself as a leader that I end up going in a completely wrong direction. I guess my question is, when do I know that I am clearly stepping up as a leader?

  20. Mariana Sa says:

    Since when I first started considering leadership as a part of my career and life in general, I question whether my actions – as one, small, person – as a leaders will result in any change. Several times I faced situations in which I was proud of myself, of my group, but my actions were still too small. For now I try to focus on smaller goals, I understand a global change will not happen only based on my will and power, and give myself and other credits for good leadership, but I still question if my effort of being a good leader is an utopia.

  21. Kristina Gallagher says:

    Studying leadership matters because it is important to know all the different avenues and styles of leadership out there to make sure that you are the best leader you can be. It also shows you how to lead in many different situations.

  22. Thomas Nave says:

    These questions definitely put things into perspective for me because I never broke leadership down into pieces. My question has always been- “Is leadership a natural born talent or is it something that a person acquires over time. It has bothered me this semester, and by the end, I feel that it has to be a little bit of both. To an extent, leadership comes natural to some people. On the other hand, there are skills and concepts that you cannot be naturally born with. You acquire these over time with experience.

  23. Kyle Rushton says:

    Over the course of the semester, I have wondered how to put my strengths into action in order to be an effective leader. After taking the Strengths Finder assessment, I became aware of what my strengths were, as well as the advantages and disadvantages to them. The assessment was very helpful, but I often find myself wondering in what ways I can use them to make an impact. Also, I have wondered about the difference between being a natural leader and acquiring the skills/strengths to be one. I have come to the realization that everyone can be a leader, just that each person expresses it differently. One person may seem to have stronger leadership qualities over another, but really they are just expressed in different ways.

  24. Maggie D says:

    I am also in agreement with the general question of what makes an effective leader? I think effective leaders are aware of their personal strengths/weaknesses, and are committed to their goals/visions. I also often wonder how leaders inspire others. One video we watched in class demonstrated how the first follower is the most important person when starting a movement in order to get everyone else on board. Even though the leader is the one who gets recognized, we would not have leaders without his/her followers.

  25. Ryan Jenvey says:

    My question is why is leadership so complex? It seems that there is no true definition of leadership. I feel that leadership could be defined as being an example for others to follow, although there seem to be many different, not to mention abstract definitions of leadership. It looks like leadership is more of a philosophy to some people rather than just an action.

  26. Crista Watson says:

    The question I have about leadership is: Is leadership always applicable in every situation? Sometimes trying to be a leader may seem annoying or unnecessary. Sometimes it is best to just leave the situation alone and let everyone decide for themselves what to do.

  27. Jerry Huang says:

    Why are we asking questions about leadership? I understand that we can retain information that is given about success in the past, but how can we learn to lead without a true experience? You can tell a person who has never played a piano before to hit the keys in an order, but it means nothing until he’s had the immersion and made the association that ivory pieces create a certain sound when hit.

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