• Carolyn Stuart

Why effective leadership is such a challenge!

Updated: Nov 28, 2019

Recently I spent time with a school leader, who I admire greatly. He is inspirational in the way he brings communities together and I love talking with him because he is forever dropping little ‘gems’ into our conversation. His latest ‘gem’ was:


“Leadership is running a democracy within a dictatorship.” Brian Price, Principal Swannanoa School

The more I reflected on this statement the more I realised how in eight words Brian had nailed one of the biggest challenges facing leaders. To be effective we operate as though we are the anointed leader of a democracy when in actual fact we are the appointed leader who carries the ultimate responsibility for what happens within an organisation.


Leaders usually earn more than those they lead because of the accountable they carry, and the further up the pecking order the greater the accountability. If things go wrong it is the leader’s neck on the line and the leader who falls on their sword if an ultimate sacrifice is required.


I will never forget the lunch-time when a classroom at the school where I was principal caught fire. I was in a meeting in my office and the first I knew something was up was when the fire alarm went off and I saw students making their way to the evacuation area. I looked out the window and saw black billowing smoke. Believe me, at that moment, Carolyn the dictator, was now in charge, moving rapidly to ensure everyone was safe, and that the procedures were being followed to the letter. At this moment I was making the decisions - it didn’t mean I wasn’t listening to the advice of others, but ultimately the decisions were mine to make and I made them. Thankfully the fire was out before the Brigade arrived, due to the quick actions of a teacher on a fire extinguisher, and for some reason, the media never picked up the story for which I was extremely grateful.


Dictatorial leadership during a time of crisis is what you do, but try being like this during the ordinary and everyday and your leadership journey will be a short one.


Recently I re-watched Dan Pink’s Ted Talk “The Puzzle of Motivation” and I was once again reminded that the greatest motivators for people are:

  • Autonomy – The desire to have control of our lives

  • Mastery – The desire to be really good at something

  • Purpose – The desire to be part of something greater than ourselves

People, including children, perform best when given choice. They like to have autonomy over the things that consume their day. They like to be really good at the work they do and to receive the recognition they deserve. People love to be reminded of the significant contribution that they make to something that is much bigger than them. That is why most leaders, including teachers, run their organisation as though it were truly a democracy, even when it isn’t.


Great leaders are those that carry their ultimate responsibility invisibly, and who rarely remind people that ‘the buck stops with them’. Great leaders set up their organisations like they were a democracy.


Maybe great leadership is a dance between democracy and dictatorship. A democratic approach works well when everything is going well but when things start to go belly up we look to more authoritative measures.


I once heard someone say that if leadership was easy then everyone would do it. Leadership is not easy. It is a role with magnificently high highs and crippling lows. Leadership is the difference between a good organisation and a great one.




Leadership is a complex occupation. If you are a leader thank you for the way you carry your dictatorship under the cloak of democracy.


Til next time


Carolyn


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