My Simple Diagram of Leadership

A number of years ago, in my doctoral studies, I took a course called Issues in Leadership Theory. Throughout the course, we, the students, were assigned essays on various theories, ideas, and characteristics of leadership, with which we were expected to interact and then write reflective responses. The goal was to build a broader understanding of leadership and of the effective practice of leadership.

I was taking this course while serving as the administrator of a K-12 school, one that had experienced some great difficulties and needed to be revitalized. I was on the ground floor, in the middle of leadership activity, trying to build and/or rebuild momentum, enrollment, programs, morale, and even (literally) a school building. There were many issues, needs, and deficiencies that I was wrestling with (like, how to start a hot lunch program, how to expand brand recognition in the community with no advertising budget or director of development, and how to attract new excellent teachers with a persuasive vision while retaining the existing excellent teachers who were resistant to change). Although I did not fully realize at the time the extent to which it was happening, I was actually developing my leadership style and principles of practice. And so, over the duration of that leadership course, as I read, interacted, and responded to the assignments, the ideas that resonated with me began to come together in my mind to form my own personal theory of leadership.

As I put those ideas together in a way that seemed to make sense to me, I began to see leadership as a process that occurs within a context, which I visually illustrate below in a diagram called Jeff’s Simple Diagram of Leadership (I like diagrams and illustrations). The basic concept is this: In any situation, there are leaders and followers. Sometimes who they are can change, but both of the individuals/groups are necessary. The leader must have knowledge of the context/environment in which the leader and followers exist (present). He must also have knowledge of the organizational history (past) and organizational vision (future). With this knowledge, the leader engages in the process that is a continuing cycle of analyzing past, present, and future in order to move people and the organization toward a desired growth, change, or direction.

diagram

Now that time has passed since I first formulated these ideas, I believe that this simple diagram is a very accurate picture, and in many ways was even prophetic, of how I have learned to lead. I have come to understand and value the extreme importance of story and culture, both in organizational history and in understanding the people with whom the leader works, and therefore have learned the value of listening and asking questions (past). I have experienced the importance of the role of relationship in the context and environment in which the leaders and followers interact, and in the process have developed my own relational skills (present). I have learned that I have the ability to see “the big picture” of what the organization ought to be and to communicate this in an understandable way (future). Along the way, I have discovered one of my greatest leadership strengths is the ability to make connections between these three – past, present, and future – in way that makes sense to people. And now as I look back, I can see that in each organization in which I have worked, my leadership has followed this pattern and process and has resulted in significant and positive change.

In that particular school in which I was first putting these ideas together, I must admit that I made many mistakes. For example, this is where I learned the importance of taking time to listen to people and understand culture before initiating change (by making the mistake of making changes too quickly without first understanding the environment). However, I grew in both my knowledge and practice of leadership, resulting in a number of significant positive changes, including, among other things: doubling of enrollment; restoration of financial stability; initiation of a large scale building program; establishment of a school board, a hot lunch program, an after school program, and a parent-teacher organization; development and expansion of honors and advanced academic programs; and establishment of a student internship program.

Since that time in my life, I have further developed effective leadership skills and practice that have enabled me to be an agent of change in several other schools and organizations. I have personally identified many of the basic principles that underscore my approach (for example:  learn history and culture; realize that people matter to God, therefore it is important to build relationships and care about people; see the big picture; recognize God’s sovereignty; know that to influence change, you have to change the way people think; communicate; empower; serve; be willing to do things differently). But I have also seen my simple diagram of leadership emerge and remain as the crux of my personal theory of leadership.

Over the last few years, I have now observed a new development: many people have shared with me that they have seen my ability to analyze and assess an organization through the filter of my theory of leadership, to develop strong and effective means of teaching and training those within the organization, and to create and communicate a plan for future growth, change, and development. They have then challenged me to make these skills available for the benefit of others. Therefore, the next step in my leadership is to begin providing this service – as a consulting service – to other schools, ministries, and organizations. My experience, education, and leadership have prepared me to help other organizations identify, understand, and implement changes that will benefit the employees, the constituents, and the organization itself.

If my services could be a benefit to your organization, please contact me at jeff.mcmaster@commonsenseleaders.com.

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