Is the term leadership a euphemism? If so, for what?

Since about half of America is holding a primary or a caucus today, that question seemed relevant. I'm not sure most people know what leadership is.

I've been listening to what the presidential candidates are saying about themselves and each other over the past few weeks. One of the most interesting discussions is between John McCain and Mitt Romney over the question of which of them is more qualified to be president. Romney, in a nutshell, says McCain lacks some important basic skills. Romney says that his own Harvard MBA, his business resume and his executive experience as a state governor give him the theoretical background knowledge and the experience needed to fix our government and economy. John McCain's response, basically, is that he doesn't think Romney was that great a governor, and that he can hire someone with a Harvard MBA and some business experience to work for him when he becomes president. McCain says that Romney's background makes him a manager in a country that needs leaders. And (surprise) McCain, of course, thinks of himself as that leader.

Whether you agree with either of them, the discussion provides some contrasting images of just what might constitute leadership. I think that one of our problems in education (or in America, for that matter) is that we're not sure what leadership is. The fact that two men who both want to be president are having this discussion seems to indicate that even our leaders don't know clearly what leadership is – or at least they don't agree on what it is.

I think one of the problems is that leadership, whatever that is, is usually only one component of most administrative jobs. School administrators do have to manage. They also do have to remain educators. As basic as that sounds, I've met principals who didn't think it was their job to be an educator anymore. They didn't think they were obligated to keep up with the research or changes in best practices. They thought their job was to manage and that the school had other people who were responsible for all that educational stuff. Heck, they'd become a principal partly because they didn't really like education very much!

The corollary to this is simple, but also often overlooked. You don't have to be an administrator to be a leader. In almost every educational environment I've ever been in, some of the most effective leaders weren't administrators; they were just committed educators whose character and values required them to lead.

I can't articulate a definition of leadership that satisfies me. I know what it isn't. I know it overlaps with many things. But I'm still looking for a crystalline definition. I worry sometimes that because the idea is difficult to define, people will think it is a euphemism for administration and thus miss the real nature of leadership.

I do know that I don't have to be an administrator to be a leader.

Greg Cruey, Guest Blogger