THE SOUL OF A LEADER
Updated: Oct 30
My exploration of leadership in the education setting is in its third decade of existence. Its roots lie in my fascination with the topic as a result of my early exposure to education leaders during the formative years of my career, long before I had acquired either the knowledge to understand leadership as a social phenomenon or the tools to study it. Emerson said, “No man can learn what he has not preparation for learning, however near to his eyes is the object.” Along the way I have come to view leadership as both an art and a science, given my observations of leaders who have kept pace with the fundamental changes of today’s complex and dynamic education environment by constantly reinventing themselves.
The leaders I’ve learned from know they cannot mandate change. They also know that change of any value requires changes in beliefs, which require changes in behaviors, which require new sets of skills, which takes time. They know it’s a myth that failed change efforts are due to an inherent resistance to change; instead, acknowledging that if any blame is to be assigned it should point inward. It’s the superficiality of most change efforts that’s to blame, if a finger must be pointed. Easy come, easy go best describes the history of failed reform. Making the next change effort that much more difficult.
In my leadership course this summer, we set out to debunk myths about leadership and break it down to its core principles as a social science concerned with observer-relative facts . Moving forward against the tide of institutional inertia requires a nuanced approach to leadership. While the jury isn’t out yet, many of my colleagues and I are finding the greatest challenge in education leadership is aligning competing interests into a common vision of the future. A common vision starts with core principles, beliefs, and values that an organization can agree on and build upon.
While we are all technically in it together, it doesn’t always seem that way, as policy makers and local education agencies, school boards and superintendents, districts and their bargaining units, and even parents and students have created their own visions of what the future of education looks like, instead of a common one focused on a set of metrics we all can agree on.
As we explore leadership theories, and the styles that emerge as extensions, we find at their core a basic principle or entity to structure the understanding and explain the theory in practical terms. Those principles unlock the mysteries of leadership. In the natural sciences, for example, where features of reality are observer-independent, principles include the atom in physics, DNA in genetics, and the tectonic plate in geology. I contend that in the case of leadership through the lens of social science, it is personality and character traits that act as the basic principle or entity. Over time, a leader's personality and character will reveal itself and emerge as the primary influence of leadership style and subsequent behaviors. A leader’s proclivities will eventually be the best predictor of future behaviors.
Successful leaders clarify their own vision, which then serves as the foundation for building a shared vision for their organizations.
Providing a deeper and richer understanding of the self through leader identity is among the primary goals of the CSUF doctoral program. Identifying desirable characteristics, such as humility, guards against unconscionable self-aggrandizement, the enemy of trust. Studying leadership through the social science lens provides students a window into the soul of a leader.
 Ralph Waldo Emerson lived by a set of guiding principles. Among them was to avoid the company of persons with whom you cannot be totally forthright. He recommended to be sincere or be silent; to speak the whole truth, as you see it, or not to speak at all. Leaders who expect to build trust would be wise to take Emerson’s advice.
 John R. Searle described features of reality that exist independently of us, features he referred to as observer-independent, and those features that depend on us for their existence, which he referred to as observer-relative. The social sciences are about observer-relative facts.