Good to Great – Part I: Leadership

Leadership = Humility and Will

Few management gurus have had an impact in educational circles as great as Jim Collins has had.  Following in the footsteps of management profs like Douglas McGregor, Collins seeks to understand what makes organizations thrive.  And many – so many as to suggest cliche – educational consultants, writers, and leaders have turned to Collins for answers on how to build great schools.

His methodology is as good as it comes in management circles – he and his team identified companies that outperformed their sector and the market generally.  Then, they decided to identify factors that these “good to great” companies had in common.  (There are ways to find fault still, though – stock markets don’t always know what’s best; but compared to most management books, it’s an incredibly reliable methodology.)  He writes well, uses compelling evidence, and goes beyond mere platitudes in his analysis; it would be hard to ignore the work.

Not suprisingly, one of the topics explored by Collins is leadership.  Indeed – it’s the first meathy topic he settles on.  And while much of his analysis is familiar (a good leader has a strong will, for example), perhaps his most powerful assertion on leadership is that the best leaders aren’t necessarily the most charismatic; in fact, he points out in the speech below, many of the best leaders seem to have a “charisma bypass.”

Too often, in organizations generally but in education specifically, we turn to the gregarious and the charming to lead us, believing that personality is more important than insight.  Collins counters: “Leadership is not about personality… we should never confuse charisma with leadership.” I would agree, and put it this way: until we prize competence over handshakes and haridos, we are doomed to inhabit mediocre schools.

In fact, extending this thinking even further, Dr. Nassir Ghaemi, professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine and director of the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center, argues that those with mental illnesses like depression actually make better leaders than the happy-go-lucky types.

“‘Normal’ nondepressed persons have what psychologists call “positive illusion”—that is, they possess a mildly high self-regard, a slightly inflated sense of how much they control the world around them,” argues Ghaemi.

“Mildly depressed people, by contrast, tend to see the world more clearly, more as it is. In one classic study, subjects pressed a button and observed whether it turned on a green light, which was actually controlled by the researchers. Those who had no depressive symptoms consistently overestimated their control over the light; those who had some depressive symptoms realized they had little control.”