James MacGregor Burns, in his 1972 Pulitzer Prize-winning book Leadership, distinguishes between transformational leadership and transactional leadership. Every organization, every community and the larger society all need leaders of each kind. Transformational leaders have the capacity to define shared values and, in turn, shared long-term aspirations. Transactional leaders make things work. In a way, transformational leaders are strategists and transactional leaders are tacticians. But both are essential in advancing the well-being and effectiveness of those they lead and serve.
Over several decades, I’ve had the good fortune to observe, work with and learn from several truly great leaders in public higher education. While quite different in personality and style, they shared certain common “leadership” characteristics.
FINDING A COMPLEMENTARY COLLEAGUE:
Those I’ve observed were all transformational leaders. They fundamentally changed and advanced the institutions they led. But each found a partner in a transactional leader. They understood instinctively where their leadership talent ended, and then found the right person(s) to “put wheels on” the transformational initiatives they launched.
CONFIDENCE, NOT ARROGANCE:
The great leaders with whom I’ve worked exuded an air of confidence that engendered confidence among others. But none exhibited arrogance or self-promotion. They didn’t need to. Their stature and influence came through their actions and their conduct.
TOUGH, NOT MEAN:
A lesson I learned from my boss at the University of Minnesota, President Nils Husselmo, is that you don’t have to be mean to be tough. He was resolute, firm and tough when he had to be—but he was never mean.
CHASING IS NOT LEADING:
I witnessed some people in leadership roles who believed that “chasing” people to move is leadership. The leaders I came to respect and tried to emulate developed trust and shared commitment among those they lead. Movement or change occurred not out of fear or intimidation, but out of collective belief in what needed to be done.
LEADERS HAVE VALUES AND A PURPOSE:
Certainly, in higher education, leadership involves sharing and shaping collective values and a common purpose. It’s been my mantra that “we transform individual lives so they’ll transform the greater society.” It provides a constant reminder of where we are going as we seek ways to get there. And it gives everyone a criterion for holding leaders and themselves accountable. And in this same vein, leaders care about those they lead.
LEADERSHIP REQUIRES INVESTMENT:
As I’ve observed, there are some people who have natural leadership skills. But it is not sufficient to assume leaders will simply appear. Leadership must be fostered, improved and empowered. And the truly great leaders I’ve encountered were constantly trying to be more effective and more impactful.
In 1964, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said of pornography, “I shall not today attempt to further define it, but I know it when I see it.” The same can be said about leadership. It may be difficult to fully define, but you’ll know it when you see it—and you’ll certainly notice it if you don’t see it.
Michael V. Martin, Ph.D., is the president of Florida Gulf Coast University.