Arrows with the words what makes good leaders


Entrenched notions of leadership are expanding to embrace collaboration and listening.

By Lonny Lippsett

Every year, Tom Matthews would ask incoming first-year students at Geneseo, “What’s your definition of leadership?” Their knee-jerk response was almost always “Leadership is telling people what to do.”

“We knew there was a lot more to it than that,” Matthews says with a smile. In 1999, Matthews, associate dean emeritus of leadership and service, was charged with creating what turned into Geneseo Opportunities for Leadership Development (GOLD) — the award-winning, renowned program for students in leadership training, personal development, service-learning and volunteer work that has become a model for many other institutions. He delved into the then-sparse academic literature on leadership and discovered “there were about 200 different definitions of leadership at the time.”

That wasn’t surprising, he says, because our concepts of leadership are an amalgamation of many different disciplines: history, political science, business, psychology, education — even literature.

Throughout history and our daily lives, in our governments, workplaces, classrooms and athletic teams, and even in the stories we tell, we crave good leaders. But what makes a good leader?

Geneseo faculty and staff members in a range of fields lend insight and help explore the concept. What attributes did some leaders have that made them successful? Are good leaders born, or can they be made? Have our ideas about leadership evolved over time? And what definition of leadership did the GOLD Program and Geneseo settle on?

A Feminine Influence in Leadership

Just on a whim, I conducted a decidedly unscientific experiment for this article. I asked 25 family members, friends and colleagues ages 8 to 78, male and female a simple question: If I asked you to name a great leader, who’s the first person who comes to mind?

I got 17 U.S. presidents, from George Washington to Barack Obama, two votes for Winston Churchill and one for Kim Jong Il. There were also two votes each for Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, and one for Nelson Mandela.

Not a single woman. 

Jennifer Katz, professor of psychology, is not surprised. Several 21st-century scholarly articles show that the abiding stereotype of a good leader is someone strong, assertive — and masculine, she says. The first line of one of them in The Leadership Quarterly summed it up: “The notion of ‘think manager-think male’ has been demonstrated in many studies.”

But there’s a fascinating paradox.

The studies also showed that contemporary businesses and organizations favor less hierarchical and more communal management approaches. They have realized the limitations of the traditional “transactional” managerial style — which over history has been practiced overwhelmingly by men — of telling people what to do and rewarding or punishing subordinates based on achieving objectives.

Instead, organizations now prefer managers who promote collaboration who recognize the value of diverse perspectives and talents, mentor and empower those they lead, and encourage them to contribute. This so-called “transformational” style engenders more flexible, creative and effective workplaces.

Women show a propensity for the cooperative attitudes and skills to be “transformational” leaders, says Katz. But here’s the hitch: People still want strength and assertiveness in their leaders traits that can be difficult to combine with empathy, humility and openness.

It’s a double bind. Male leaders just have to be strong; they aren’t castigated for not being warm. Women are expected to be both, but not too much of either smart but not arrogant, attractive but not too attractive, bold but not brash, Katz says.

This double bind infuses people’s perceptions in many subtle and infuriating ways, she says. Hillary Clinton’s voice was harshly critiqued, for example, but nothing is said about Bernie Sanders’ voice. A man who tears up is lauded for his sensitivity, while a woman who does is deemed weak and fragile.

Many stereotypes are culturally imbued from childhood (think “pink” is for girls and “blue” is for boys) and stubbornly endure, Katz says. “We still divide the world into male and female. We put people into categories without thinking. People respond in automatic, visceral ways and don’t interrogate that.”

Katz says we’re still in the relatively nascent stages of achieving a critical mass of women in leadership positions in business, government and society, or depicted in popular culture as presidents, police chiefs, CEOs or heads of law firms — to provide inspirational role models for women and to breed familiarity and comfort for everyone.

“We just have to continue to build more and more awareness to overcome millennia of stereotypes,” Katz says. “I feel hopeful that there’s a lot more openness in the next generations for what constitutes accepted behavior for different genders, and for all different types of people. We are riding a seesaw while waiting for society to change, so that these beneficial qualities we seek in leaders are just human qualities, not women’s or men’s qualities, and leadership is not about gaining and maintaining power, but using power to empower others and move us collectively forward.”

The underestimated legacy of a historic leader

If you’re looking for an iconic American leader a trailblazer, an inspirational role model, someone who can teach us lessons about ourselves now and going forward — Associate Professor of History Catherine Adams would like to shine a spotlight on a woman who should never be lost in the shadows of time: Shirley Chisholm.

In 1968, Chisholm was the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Congress. Four years later, she became the first Black person and first woman to seek a major party’s nomination for U.S. president. 

Chisholm came to prominence at the peak of the civil rights movement, and as the Black liberation, women’s rights and anti-Vietnam War movements were all gathering steam, Adams says. It was a time of civil unrest in a nation deeply divided — politically, economically and generationally — about calls for social justice. A time not unlike now.

“The way she served was a model and inspiration for Blacks and women pursuing political office,” Adams says. Chisholm, a Democrat representing an urban New York City district, was originally assigned to the Agriculture Committee. But she demanded and received reassignment to the Education and Labor Committee, famously saying, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”

“She was assertive in defense of her own rights and the rights of the people she was elected to serve,” Adams says. 

As she canvassed the country running for president, Chisholm caught the attention of Adams, a young Black girl in Detroit, and many others across the nation. There was power in her voice, Adams says. She was articulate, assertive and charming. She wore bright outfits and bold hairdos — “so that people will look at me, not through me,” Chisholm said.

“What struck us was her confidence,” Adams says. “She had no doubt that she deserved to run and to win, and she conveyed that.”

Her campaign slogan was “Unbought and Unbossed.” “I am not the candidate of Black America, although I am Black and proud,” she said. “I am not the candidate of the women’s movement of this country, although I am a woman and equally proud of that. I am a candidate of the people, and my presence before you symbolizes a new era in American political history.”

Her candidacy turned the inconceivable into the possible. On the campaign trail, Chisholm courageously endured double prejudice, as a Black person and a woman, and credible death threats — in an era when John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated and one of her Democratic primary opponents, Alabama Gov. George Wallace, had been shot and paralyzed. Here, Chisholm displayed another quality: compassion. She was the only Democratic presidential candidate to visit Wallace in the hospital, though he had run on a platform of white supremacy and segregation. 

“She was able to build collaborations across boundaries if it helped her constituents,” Adams says. She worked with Republican Rep. Bob Dole of Kansas to expand food stamps and create the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) nutrition program.

“She was an early voice pushing for issues that most men weren’t paying attention to: health care for all, expanded day care and education funding, better housing,” Adams says. “These are the same issues of poverty and discrimination at the roots of structural inequality in our society that we are fighting about in politics today.”

“We’re at a moment to recognize Shirley Chisholm again not just as a ‘first,’ but as a politician who bravely stood up for her convictions, someone who represents the possibility of America and who we Americans say we are.”

A modern definition of leadership

History and fiction are replete with leaders who masterfully commanded legions of followers: George Washington astride his boat crossing the Delaware, Moses parting the Red Sea and leading the Jews to the promised land — even effective albeit evil ones, such as Adolf Hitler and Captain Ahab.

All of these images are also riddled with myths about leadership, says Nick Palumbo, assistant dean of students for leadership and service who now directs the GOLD program. Leaders aren’t “born.” They don’t command. And the most important aspect of their leadership is not how many were following, but where they were headed. The idea that all successful leaders are endowed with special abilities is outdated.

A guiding principle of the GOLD program is that leadership isn’t ceded to people by dint of their gender, ethnicity, societal status, or inherent talent or charisma. Leadership involves not traits a person has, but skills anyone can learn, Palumbo says.

So the GOLD program offers a rich smorgasbord of workshops on topics as pragmatic as running effective meetings, time management, team building, and listening to others, and as philosophical as emotional intelligence and civic and community engagement. Shy introverts and others who never imagined themselves as leadership material have developed the tools and gained the confidence to lead — even if it’s not necessarily from the front, says Palumbo.

Leadership is not position-based or trait-based, he says, but relationship-based. In Tom Matthews’ initial quest to find a definition of leadership for the GOLD program, he found the one that it still follows. Leadership, it says, is “a relational and ethical process of people together attempting to accomplish positive change.” 

“Working together with people to get something done is leadership,” Palumbo says. “You can lead from the front, or you can lead from behind. Everyone has strengths, or can develop them, that can contribute. No matter which position or path you take, as long as you are part of a process that moves people toward a common goal, you are a leader.”

The GOLD program emphasizes this relation-oriented form of leadership, embracing the diversity of gifts that individuals can bring and the commitment they share, Palumbo says.

“We’re at such a tipping point in our global community right now,” he says. “But if we work together toward a shared goal, we can change whatever problems are confronting us.”

A different way to “lead” a class

Lytton Smith, associate professor of English and creative writing and the director of the Center for Integrative Learning at Geneseo, sets the scene for the semester’s first class of the advanced poetry workshop that he teaches. 

“Fifteen students come into a room on Day One. I’ll ask them to rearrange the chairs in a circle, and I join them in that circle. I tell them, ‘We’re 16 writers in a room. I’m also trying to write during the semester, and I’m trying out things, too. I’m not the person who knows all the rules.’”

Smith says he sets up a horizontal power structure, channeling the pedagogic theories of Paulo Freire, who famously repudiated the “banking method” of education, in which teachers at the head of class deposit their accumulated knowledge into the relatively empty accounts of students.

“Our model of leadership is being able to turn to people who have different ideas than you,” Smith says. “Each person sees the work and the creative process differently. The question is, can we learn to recognize the strengths that each person may bring to the discussion and what we can learn from them?”

From this perspective, the group together is faced with a cutting-edge problem — a work in progress — and shares a responsibility to help move a poem and a poet forward. It creates an environment that encourages everyone to contribute — and listen. People who think they know it all and might dominate the conversation come to realize how much there is to know. “They become more humble and more able to listen to others,” Smith says. He recalled when he was a student, he had a classmate who constantly focused on punctuation. “That irritated me at first,” he says. “But what it taught me was that I was ignoring a facet of how to create a poem.”

In this process, leaders aren’t infallible, says Smith. That includes himself, as professor. “That’s been the hardest and most useful thing for me to learn as a teacher: to get comfortable being wrong. I’ll suggest something, and somebody else will have a better idea. So, I say, ‘Ignore me, try what Gemma said.’ Instead of me telling them one person’s view of what a ‘finished’ poem is, they get a collaborative understanding of the possibilities of poetry.” 

This style of pedagogy is common at Geneseo, Smith says. “Rather than the traditional teacher-student hierarchy, we gather as a community to learn.”

The idea, Smith says, is infused in the Geneseo Learning Outcomes for Baccalaureate Education, a document that was developed over years and adopted in 2016 that serves as a framework to build and assess the student experience at Geneseo. On the list of “Intellectual and Practical Skills” that a Geneseo education aims to foster in students is “Leadership and Collaboration.” Not as two separate items, but inextricably intertwined.

Far from one person telling people what to do, leadership is many people listening to one another. Now, if you were asked what makes a great leader, what traits or who comes to mind?