School & District Management Opinion

Boss and Buddy: Can a Leader Be Both?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — December 04, 2016 5 min read
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Leaders have many functions to perform. That myriad of roles complicates the nature of the relationships a leader can develop and maintain within the organization and the community. Leaders will inevitably be faced with situations where they must require the faculty and staff to respond with immediate compliance. But, most issues and situations allow for the space and time to act with understanding and compassion, to be the lead listener.

A recent New York Times article, “Bossy vs. Buddy; Two Leadership Styles Each With its Place” raises an interesting idea. Author Phyllis Korkki reported research about dominant vs. prestige leadership styles and the research of Prof. Jon K. Maner of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

The presidential election offers up an example of the two styles: Donald J. Trump is a dominant leader, while Hillary Clinton has more prestige-leaning qualities, Professor Maner said...The dominant style has a negative cast and can lead to damaging behavior like bullying. Over all, the prestige style tends to work better in our culture...He has found that dominant people exhibit behavior like speaking more often and more loudly, while prestige types spend more time listening and synthesizing other people’s contributions.

What Comes Naturally?
Although both descriptions may seem extreme, it is interesting, and maybe even revealing, to ask oneself which is the more natural fit for us? Given a forced choice, each of us might naturally lean in one direction or the other. And whether dominant or prestige-leaning, both have value. The trick lies in knowing four things: which is natural, which needs to be developed, when and how to invoke the type of leadership needed at any particular time, and how to avoid the pitfalls of each.

Developing one’s weaker style can be challenging. And, only then, can there be a choice to determine what the situation and community require in any particular moment. It is no less difficult to “do no harm” when moving between styles. And, it raises the question of how can one do that while being trustworthy to all?

The study of leadership is filled with theories about styles and alternatives. In Bass’ leadership tome entitled The Bass Handbook of Leadership he differentiates transactional vs. transformation leadership. He describes:

A leader is transactional when the follower is rewarded with a carrot for meeting agreements and standards or beaten with a stick for failing in what was supposed to be done. If the leader is limited to such behavior, the follower will feel like a jackass (Levinson, 1980b). Leaders must also address the follower’s sense of self-worth, one of the things that transformational leaders do (p. 618).

Who among us aspires to followers who feel as described here? Yet, we do have carrot or stick actions and decisions we can point to. As we grow from management into leadership, there is a sense that emerges about how far we need to go and what style will serve best. Whether transactional or transformational, dominant or prestige-leaning, or some blended of both, the stressors of the urgent moment can pull us toward what comes most naturally.

Choosing Which Role
Time to discern which to invoke does not exist in situations requiring quick response and decisive action. We are often haunted by that voice in our heads about strength and weakness. Yet, we also know that there is no such thing a weak leadership. It is an oxymoron. We suggest that the best of us can, even in a crisis moment, be strong and firm while not losing the capability to be sensitive to the impact of our actions and to communicate directly and with empathy. Even though there may be resistance and disbelief, strength arises from the deeply held conviction that the best option is being taken.

An example can be found in the long bemoaned 3-8 testing that is required. The end of the story is a nation-wide resistance by the opt-out movement where parents held their children home, or sent notes excusing their children from the testing. In this, leaders had a choice. It was a transition in thinking and practice. Tests were going to measure students each year in grades 3-8. And in some places the results were folded into an evaluation of the performance of their teachers. A legislative attempt at incorporating accountability, some school leaders turned and communicated the requirement to their teachers sans the much needed transformational or prestige-leaning behaviors that would have helped the implementation whether it was welcomed, agreed with, or not.

The leaders who knew how to invoke the type of leadership the field needed invited their teachers into the process of planning for the testing to be the least disruptive and to become part of the students’ routine without adding fear or stress. Those leaders also worked with parents in the community, helping them understand the difficulties and the potential value of the now required process. Even if they shared their own hesitation or concern about the imposition, their expressed efforts to make it the best implementation with an eye on the children’s welfare quieted their communities.

This is not a criticism of the leaders who took and passed along the directives as marching orders, followed, implemented, and completed their obligation and the obligation of their organizations. We each do what we think best as each situation arises. That is exactly why it is important to define our relationships and inclinations: boss or buddy, transactional or transformational, dominant or prestige-leaning. Developing the side that is weaker, and paying close enough attention to each situation to know how to invoke them makes the difference that matters. It is as important as knowing how to create the schedule, check the curriculum, know how to observe and evaluate, or any of the other administrivia. Yet, you will find accomplishing any of these tasks, or the larger ones that involve helping people change the way they do things, or implement an unwelcomed change, can result in fewer casualties and unintended consequences when the type of leadership produces desired results with the largest followership. In the end, the terms “boss” and “buddy” both seem archaic and more relevant to the manager than the leader. But, they still command research and NYT attention so they obviously are alive and well in the public mind. From all of this, that may be the most important message....and warning for those of us who argue that leaders can be both “in charge” and “in concert” with others.

Bass, B.M. (2008). The Bass Handbook of Leadership: Theory, Research, & Managerial Applications New York: Free Press

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

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