Ordinary People, Extraordinary Leadership

David Ivers is from Sydney, Australia. He is a qualified Primary and Secondary School Teacher. In total, he has served on school leadership teams for 16 years in senior leadership roles.

“And the mists had all solemnly risen now, and the world lay spread before me.”

Charles Dickens (1861) ‘Great Expectations’ London: Harper Collins.

On 21 May 2022, Australians went to the poll to vote for the next Federal Government and Prime Minister of Australia. Around midnight, the Opposition Leader, Anthony Albanese was giving a victory speech. First order of business on Monday, May 23, the new Prime Minister was being sworn in by the Australian Governor-General, along with an inner-cabinet. The full cabinet was recently sworn into office. After the Prime Minister was sworn in, he and the Foreign Minister boarded an Air Force jet to fly to Tokyo, to meet with the President of the United States, the Prime Minister of Japan, and the Prime Minister of India, in a meeting of the ‘Quad’. It has for the new Prime Minister, meant hitting the ground running.

Why is this significant? The change of a government always holds some significance, as does the re-election of a serving government. What is of interest and instructive, is the background of the new Prime Minister. He spoke of his humble beginnings in his victory speech.

“It says a lot about our great country that a son of a single mom who was a disability pensioner, who grew up in public housing down the road in Camperdown, can stand before you tonight as Australia’s prime minister.”

The Associated Press (22 May 2022). Albanese elected Australia’s leader in complex poll result.

This brings home the question, does the background of a leader determine how successful or exceptional they might be? In truth, the leader’s background and family life plus their life and professional experiences are key variables in the leadership equation. Indeed, Australia has previously had highly successful Prime Ministers that came from humble beginnings. The 16th Prime Minister (1945-1949), Ben Chifley, was a farm laborer and later a steam engine driver for the New South Wales Railways. His ability to connect with ‘ordinary people’ as easily as he could connect to world leaders made him an influential leader.

Similar examples can be found in American Presidents. Abraham Lincoln is known to have been born and raised in a one-room log cabin, on a farm in which he would work as a farm hand/laborer. Likewise, President Truman was also raised on a farm and undertook farm work, later expanding his horizons.

“After graduating from Independence High School (now William Chrisman High School) in 1901, Truman worked as a timekeeper on the Santa Fe Railroad, sleeping in “hobo camps” near the rail lines; he then worked at a series of clerical jobs. He worked briefly in the mail room of the Kansas City Star…He returned to the Grandview farm in 1906 and stayed there until 1917 when he went into military service.”   

MobileReference (Ed). (2010). American Presidents from MobileReference (Version 12.4)(eBook). Boston, Massachusetts: MobileReference (SoundTells, LLC).

What this highlights is that leaders are drawn from all walks of life. It might also be suggesting that successful leaders who hail from humble origins, may be perceived as having the ‘common touch’, as being a leader that many can have faith and some affiliation with. It gives people one way in which to buy-in to the leader and in turn, have trust in the leader. The question as to whether leaders are born or made was explored by a team of fourteen Pharmacy academics. In their 2017 paper “Point/Counterpoint: Are Outstanding Leaders Born or Made? “published in the American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, their conclusion to this question was, it is most likely both.

“Historical examples exist to support both a genetic and environmental component to leadership…Leaders most likely arise from a combination of genetic predisposition as well as development through reactions to environmental factors.”  

Boerma. Marjan., Coyle. Elizabeth. A., Dietrich. Michael. A., et.al. (2017). “Point/Counterpoint: Are Outstanding Leaders Born or Made?” American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education 2017; 81(3) Article 58.

A few caveats should be made at this point. Terms like ‘ordinary’ and ‘extraordinary’ are perhaps subjective and may need some clarification. After all an extraordinary person could be taken to be someone who is ‘extra-ordinary’, though typically it refers to a person who is beyond the ordinary. The word ‘extraordinary’ is derived from the Latin word, ‘extraordinārius’, meaning beyond that which is ordinary.

The word ‘ordinary’ suggests that which is common or commonplace. It too is derived from Latin, ‘ordinārius’ the same word from which the word order is derived. The ‘ordinary’ person engages in a life that is common or even commonplace or lives a life that is routine or ordered in some way. Often those with the common touch, also have commonsense, a trait in leaders that cannot easily be taught. There are of course certain traits, that most successful leaders exhibit. This was found in the work of Day, Sammons, Hopkins, Harris, Leithwood, and Brown, in their research for the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children’s Services, in the United Kingdom. 

“Our claim is that the most successful school leaders are open-minded and ready to learn from others. They are flexible rather than dogmatic within a system of core values. They are persistent in their high expectations of others, and they are emotionally resilient and optimistic. Such traits help explain why successful leaders facing daunting conditions are often able to push forward against the odds. Our research confirms this. Data from across the case studies provides rich illustrations of these core values.”  

Day, C., Sammons, P., Hopkins, D., Harris, A., Leithwood, K., Gu, Q., & Brown, E. (2010). 10 Strong claims about successful school leadership. Nottingham: National College for Leadership of Schools and Childrens Services. p7. 

These examples of ‘ordinary’ people offering ‘extraordinary’ leadership, may not just be reflective of their humble beginnings. It may also be reflective of their level of Emotional Intelligence and how evolved that may well be, in the leader in question. In short, an evolved Emotional Intelligence may well lead such a leader to be reflective and focused on the things and issues that really matter. The common touch may well make them a strong ‘empath’, something essential in building quality relationships with the team being led. Daniel Goldman, in his excellent book ‘The Emotionally Intelligent Leader’, put it this way. 

“For those who dont want to end up similarly compartmentalized, the message is clear. A focused leader is not the person concentrating on the three most important priorities of the year, or the most brilliant systems thinker, or the one most in tune with the corporate culture. Focused leaders can command the full range of their own attention: They are in touch with their inner feelings, they can control their impulses, they are aware of how others see them, they understand what others need from them, they can weed out distractions and also allow their minds to roam widely, free of preconceptions.”  

Goleman, Daniel. (2019). The Emotionally Intelligent Leader (eBook). Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Business Review Press. p94-95. 

What is crystal clear here is that it’s not just a person’s past that determines their future. At best it colors it and perhaps gives some direction for the leadership journey. What leaders like Lincoln were exceptional at was life-long learning, which can be either formal or informal learning. When you look closely at leaders from humble beginnings that become exceptional leaders, being an avid reader on a diverse range of topics and disciplines, seems to be a recurring theme. Whilst Thomas Jefferson had many opportunities that Abraham Lincoln never had, Jefferson’s father certainly had a humble life and wanted more for his son, something that every parent seeks for their child. If you ever want the proof that an avid reader of multiple disciplines can do amazing things, visit the Jefferson Library within the Library of Congress in Washington DC. The motto/mantra of Harvard Graduate School of Education is: “learn to change the world.” Leaders such as Lincoln and Jefferson are sure proof of the truth in such a statement.

Does the background of a leader determine how successful or exceptional they might be?

DAVID IVERS

From a recruitment perspective, of course, this has implications. If the names of each candidate were blind to the panel, if it were blacked out or simply a number during the shortlisting process, the qualities, knowledge, skills, and experiences, would need to come to the fore, as might their vision and ambition for the role moving forward. Typically, recruitment panels often focus on the technical skillset needed for the position. The candidate’s level of competency and proficiency can often dominate the panel’s conversation and discernment. Consideration should also focus on how comfortable they seem to be in leading the way, showing the way, challenging along the way, enabling and encouraging others along the way. The soft skills, the hidden learnings, the Emotional Intelligence, the ability to quickly form positive relationships with the team, must in the twenty-first century, carry as much importance. Kouzes and Posner, in their longitudinal study on leadership, articulated this as ‘The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership’. In summary they are as follows. 

Model the Way: Titles are granted, but it’s your behavior that earns you respect. 

Inspire a Shared Vision: People describe their Personal-Best Leadership Experiences as times when they imagined exciting and meaningful futures for themselves and others.  

Challenge the Process: Every single personal-best leadership case involved some change from the status quo.  

Enable Others to Act: Leaders know they can’t do it alone. Grand dreams don’t become significant realities through the actions of a single person.  

Encourage the Heart: The climb to the top of any new and challenging endeavor is arduous and steep, and it is not surprising that people can become exhausted, frustrated, and disenchanted. Leaders indicated in their Personal-Best Leadership Experiences that they had to Encourage the Heart of those with whom they were working to carry on, especially when they might have been tempted to give up.  

Kouzes, James, B., Posner, Barry, Z. (2021). Everyday People, Extraordinary Leadership: How to Make a Difference Regardless of Your Title, Role, or Authority (eBook). Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons. Ch.1.

This of course begs the question. What would happen if the questions or scenarios, developed for a recruitment panel, focused on ‘The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership’. Obviously the technical and the competency questions still need to be considered but would a more rounded person be selected if this practice were in place? What if a person’s performance focused on these five practices? Sure, tie them to  organizational settings if that’s appropriate but you do have to ask the question, what if? In terms of a government agency, what if the processes, including selection, onboarding and induction had a clear focus on such practices, would it change the organizational dynamics for the better? What if you added Emotional Intelligence into that mix. Would it make an impactful difference? Collectively, would it lead to better examples of relational leadership, perhaps even inspiring leadership? At the end of the day, in this age of ‘The Great Resignation’, relational and inspiring leadership is increasingly critical. After all people stay with an organization if they feel a sense of belonging. The fluidity within labor markets due to ‘The Great Resignation’, really means that leaders need to be more than extraordinary, perhaps even more than exemplary. They need to be inspiring and relational every day. They need to create a legacy. They need to bring inspiring and relational leadership, into the ordinary.

“Inspiring all to never lose. It’ll take a long long time before they fill your shoes.”  

Artist: Rod Stewart. Writer(s): Bernie Taupin, Jim Cregan. (1981). “Never Give Up On A Dream.” Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Universal Music Publishing Group, Warner Chappell Music, Inc.

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