What is leadership?

This section invites you to think critically about the nature of leadership and its role in schools.

It starts by asking how our ideas about leadership have been formed. What or who has influenced my leadership? What guides my approach to leadership? It then explores the different understandings of management and leadership.

The activities in this session will help you to start forming your own philosophy of leadership: your vision of leadership, the beliefs and principles you hold, the values you live out and the impact your leadership has.


This TED talk provides a good introduction to leadership, and how ideas about leadership have evolved. It is quite long (17 minutes) but it provides a gentle introduction to the subject of leadership and one I would watch in a leadership induction programme.

How do I define leadership?

Knowing oneself is key to understanding your leadership. Once you understand yourself you can compare what your assumptions are about leadership with those with whom you work. You can then appreciate that others with their differences can also be right. It is very important to know yourself and where your cultural assumptions are coming from.

Activity 1:Leadership characteristics

Think about a person you know whose leadership skills you admire. This person can be someone you work or have worked with or someone in your personal life. They do not have to hold a position of authority in order for you to admire their leadership traits. What traits or behaviours does the person exhibit that make you appreciate his or her leadership skills? Try to list four or more traits.

In groups compare the traits and behaviours and compile a composite list. How many commonalities were in your choices? Use a flip chart to collate the traits using markings to indicate when a particular trait was mentioned a number of times.

An example

This exercise took an incredible time but provided an incentive for self-reflection. It's truly challenging, but finally rewarding to figure out what are the most admirable human characteristics especially in leadership. 

I had to acknowledge that there is an almost endless number of people who have left a huge legacy in history. Therefore I decided to focus on the ones who are living currently among us and who could be the people I could really trust as leaders. I would call them a "Dream Team" with whom I could go to any mission and even leave the life if needed. Hereby I attach the photo with the names and explanations. 

Additionally, let me add here the names who were left out for the reason that they are either dead by now or not active anymore (except one who was left out due to questions about morality). Other nominated candidates

  • Jan Železný - one of the greatest athletes of all times who holds the world record in the javelin throw by now for 24 years, won three times both in the Olympics and World Championship.
  • Winston Churchill – UK ex-Prime Minister stood against the evil of the Third Reich in the Second WW and its Führer, an encouraging speaker.
  • Vladimir Putin – President of Russia, attempts to hold together the Orthodox civilization + its territories and geopolitical balance, introducing publicly human aspects in the life of a politician, strong and facts-based in arguing, unconventional.
  • Che Guevara – a dedicated revolutionist who helped to liberate Cuba and had been fighting in various other countries for the communist revolution.
  • Mahatma Gandhi – a non-violent political activist who led the campaign for India’s independence from British rule.
  • Nelson Mandela – ex-President of South-Africa, a political prisoner who spoke against the apartheid and tried to unite his nation.  

This example is provided with the kind permission of Olavi Otepalu, Director of the International School in Tallinn, during a Leading the Learning Category 2 workshop in September 2020.

Activity 2: What does leadership look like?

  • Use a Padlet to post your images on ‘what is leadership’?
  • Use google images as a quick search. You could also use Pinterest, which describes itself as "the world's catalogue of ideas". It is a social network site that allows people to share ideas and posting (known as pinning in Pinterest) images or videos onto their own or others' boards. Use their search engine for leadership 'pins'.

  • What are the key themes? Are there any similarities or differences with what you brainstormed in activity 1?

Dig deeper:

In his blog Chris Hildrew analyzes a number of leadership images in a very helpful way. Click here to access it.

Providing people with specific images can provoke discussion.

For example, consider this picture. What does it suggest about leadership?

Reflection: some examples from IB leaders - what do you think?

Activity 4: Describing leadership

  • Individually look at the ‘Quotes that Speak to me’ on the nature of leadership. Try to read everyone. Then choose a quote that most speaks to you.
  • Identify key powerful and provoking words.
  • Table groups - each person tells the “story” and significance of the quote to the rest of the group and explain how it exemplifies current and future practice.
  • Have a group discussion around the quotes. Which themes come out of your choices – how do the quotes shape your life, how may they affect your leadership?

Leadership Quotes

"I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." (Maya Angelou).

"I cannot give you the formula for success, but I can give you the formula for failure, which is: try to please everybody."(Herbert B Swope)

"Where there is no vision, the people perish." (Proverbs 29:18)

"You manage things; you lead people." (Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper)

"A leader is a dealer in hope." (Napoleon Bonaparte).

"Leaders become great not because of their power but because of their ability to empower others." (John Maxwell)

"Marshalling, focusing and developing energy, information and relationships becomes the role of leaders." (Margaret Wheatley).

"Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and  making sure that impact lasts in your absence." (Sheryl Sandberg COO of Facebook).

"The first job of leadership is to love people. Leadership without love is manipulation." (Rick Warren).

"If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader." (John Quincy Adams).

"A leader is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind." (Nelson Mandela).

"A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not set out to be a leader, but becomes one by the equality of his actions and the integrity of his intent." (Douglas MacArthur)

"Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it." (Dwight D Eisenhower).

"I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the water to create many ripples." (Mother Teresa)

"The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority." (Kenneth Blanchard)

"Do what you feel in your heart to be right–for you’ll be criticized anyway." (Eleanor Roosevelt)

"Example is not the main thing in influencing others, it is the only thing." (Albert Schweitzer)

"Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other." (John F. Kennedy)

"The final test of a leader is that he leaves behind him in other men, the conviction and the will to carry on." (Walter Lippman).

"I am not the product of my circumstances. I am a product of my decisions." (Stephen Covey).

"If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader." (John Quincy Adams).

"When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it." (Henry Ford).

"Don't judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant." (Robert Louis Stevenson).

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do; so throw off the bowliness, sail away from safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover." (Mark Twain).

"As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others." (Bill Gates).

"If you think you are leading and turn around to see no one following, then you are just taking a walk." (Benjamin Hooks).

"Don't blow off another's candle for it won't make yours shine brighter." (Jaachynma N E Agu).

"A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: 'we did it ourselves.'" (Lao Tzu).

“The people with ideas have no power and the people with power have no ideas.” (Harmon Okinyo)

“Supreme leaders determine where generations are going and develop outstanding leaders they pass the baton to.” (Anyaele Sam Chiyson)

“A leader has a great duty. You have to perform beyond the expectation of the people.” (Lailah Gifty Akita)

“If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.” (Ellen Johnson Sirleaf)

“You take the front line when there is danger. The people will appreciate your leadership.” (Nelson Mandela)

“As a leader of a mass organisation, one must listen to the people.” (Nelson Mandela)

“Lead from the back – and let others believe they are in front.” (Nelson Mandela)

“One of the things I learnt when I was negotiating was that until I changed myself I could not change others.” (Nelson Mandela)

"Leadership is a combination of strategy and character. If you must be without one, be without the strategy." (Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf).

"Be willing to make decisions. That's the most important quality in a good leader." (Gen. George S. Patton Jr.)

"The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers." (Ralph Nadar)

"The final test of a leader is that he leaves behind in others the conviction and will to carry on." (Walter Lippman)

A good leader takes a little more than his share of the blame, a little less than his share of the credit.” (Arnold H. Glasow)

“Ultimately, leadership is not about glorious crowning acts. It's about keeping your team focused on a goal and motivated to do their best to achieve it, especially when the stakes are high and the consequences really matter. It is about laying the groundwork for others' success, and then standing back and letting them shine.”  (Chris Hadfield)

How are leaders made?

Watch the following video - identify what is happening.

Now watch this again but now with commentary - what are the key lessons for leadership?

  • What is an example at your school where a first follower emerged?
  • Or the leadership didn't have a first follower?

Is it enough to follow the leader?

Larry Ferlazzo is a high-school teacher in Sacramento, California. In his blog ‘Dancing Guy doesn’t teach good leadership lessons’ (July 2012) he questions the leadership style and lessons portrayed in the video. Click HERE to review the article.

What do you think? Complete the following sentence starter: 'Meaningful change happens when...'

Shared leadership

Leadership does not always depend on one person or a small group of people. Leadership can also be viewed as a social process that happens between people.

Consider the article on Shared Leadership mentioned in activity 4 below and the video on Soulful Organizations, those institutions which have replaced traditional hierarchical leadership systems with more democratic leadership structures.

Activity 5: Reflecting on leadership

  • Read the article by Doyle, M.E., and Smith M.K., on shared leadership[1] by clicking here.
  • Use the A paragraph, sentence, phrase, word protocol to highlight a sentence that helped you understand the paper and contains the 'big idea', underline a phrase that resonated with you - in a meaningful or provoking way and circle a word that stood out to you and captured your attention.
  • In groups discuss what new insights this provides about leadership.

If you have time compare and contrast this article with the article Classical models of managerial leadership: trait, behavioural, contingency and transformational theory by Doyle, M.E., and Smith, M.K. (2001). Click here to access it.

Soulful Organizations

Activity 6: What is leadership?

Use your learning on this page to complete the sentence: "Leadership is..."


  1. ^ Doyle, M.E., and Smith, M.K. (2001) 'Shared leadership', the encyclopedia of informal education, //www,infed.org/leadership/shared_leadership.htm
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