Characteristics of effective leaders as viewed from structural, human resource and political lenses and their implications to teaching and learning

Author: Aytaged Zeleke, instructor at Deleware Technical Community College.

Abstract

The motivation to this article came from a recollection of the observation I had with the leadership practices of my former bosses which made me explore the common characteristics of effective leaders. Even though many scholars in the field have pointed out numerous characteristics effective leaders exhibit, I found Drucker ‘s (2004) article titled “What makes an effective executive” comprehensive and representative of many of the major characteristics of good leaders.

This exploration led me to categorize these characteristics in to three leadership frameworks, namely structural, human resource, and political (Bolman and Deal, 2013). From this literature-based synthesis, I tried to draw possible implications to teaching and learning.        

Keywords: effective leaders, structural frame, human resource frame , political frame

Introduction

For over two decades, I have worked with different educational institutions’ leaders in my teaching and research experiences. My first teaching experience started as a volunteer teacher in an elementary and junior high school in 1995. This was while I was doing my   diploma/ associate degree studies. The director of the school had a poster in his office door that read “Every teacher is a boss; thus, your work is your boss “. Mr. Peter was a school principal who wanted us to conduct planned teaching and students’ learning assessments. As long us the works are effectively and efficiently done, he did not care about details and he was flexible to accommodate differences if some of us deviate   from his expectations for logical reasons. He was so supportive, but he wanted to comply with the standardbred the ministry of education prescribed. He was a member of the ruling party of the country, Ethiopia, so he was well known for injecting his political ideology whenever he got an opportunity to do so.

Right after I graduated from the Kotebe College of Teachers Education, I was lucky to get a paid teaching position in Selam Elementary and Junior Children's school. Mr. Jones, the director of the school, had completely a different leadership style than Mr. Peter. He wanted the teaching and learning practices to be conducted as he prescribed.  For example, he wanted to make sure quizzes, as well as tests and exams were administered as he scheduled them for us; he did not like teachers to set dates for tests and quizzes independently. Even the well experienced teachers had to get approval to do so. He also was interested in knowing what every teacher was doing so he liked to spy teachers’ attendance of every session. One day, when he was spying, he found my classroom empty; neither I nor my students were in the class. When he turned his face to the football field, he saw us there. We appeared to him that we were just playing football canceling the class period. He observed from the distance that about 10 students were sitting in each of the three circles while a student in the middle of each circle throws a ball to the other students in turn. He aggressively run in to us and yelled at me in front of my students. He said, “I have employed you to teach English, not sport; you will be penalized for wasting the class time” It was a very anxious moment for me since I had not yet become a full-time teacher. I tried to explain that what I was doing was teaching antonyms in the form of a game. The game was that a student in the middle throws a ball to one of the students in the circle by calling a word (for example good). When a student who is in the circle receives the ball, he / she    throws back the ball to the student in the   center calling the antonym of the word (for example bad). I thought that was an interesting game to review antonyms with a grade 6 student. However, he could not understand me; as a result, I received an oral warning. After that incident I was so careful in doing what he wanted me to do.

In my higher education teaching experience, I had also worked under several leaders who exhibited different leadership characteristics. For example, one of them was so humble, caring and so sociable; he always wanted to make decisions collectively. In many of the meetings, he faced difficulties to do the work done because the faculty members wanted to promote their own ideas and he wanted to make everyone happy.  It was also very common to have no consensus in meetings.

I wish my purpose in this article allowed me to narrate the characteristics of all my former school/ university leaders. However, the purpose of the above narration is to point out my background motivation that made me explore the characteristics of   effective leaders. Whenever I think of my former bosses, I always ask myself who was the best leader. Mostly, my reflective answer is that every one of them have good qualities even though I am cognizant of the fact that there is always a room for improved leadership. As a college instructor and different courses’ leader in my current job, I need to understand what effective leaders do. Thus, this article was born out of this curiosity.

My review of the literature showed that leadership is defined differently by different scholars in the field. Many scholars in the field have also pointed out numerous characteristics effective leaders exhibit. I found Drucker ‘s (2004) article titled “What makes an effective executive” comprehensive and representative of many of the major characteristics of good leaders. In addition , reviewing Drucker’s resume revealed that he is one of the giants in the field; moreover, the article got published in one of the reputable journals, which is   Harvard Business Review. Thus, I decided to focus on this article and digest it. What is more, his report is based on his 65 years of consulting experience in the field of management and biographies of successful executives. He illustrates these effective practices by giving examples from executives that range from the U.S. presidents to business and non-profit CEOs. Thus, I consider  Drucker’s description of the characteristics of  good leaders  a result of solid research and experience in the field.

Drucker ( 2004, pp .1) contends that effective executives differ in many areas including personality, and ability but their effectiveness is a result of following the same eight practices. These are :

 

  • They asked, “What needs to be done?”
  • They asked, “What is right for the enterprise?”
  • They developed action plans.
  • They took responsibility for decisions.
  • They took responsibility for communicating.
  • They were focused on opportunities rather than problems.
  • They ran productive meetings.
  • They thought and said “we” rather than “I.”

 

.These leadership characteristics can be categorized  in to three broad categories. The first thing effective leaders do is searching for the needed knowledge and information to manage their organization. “What needs to be done [and] what is right for the enterprise” are the first two questions they ask (p.1). Since knowledge alone is not sufficient, the next thing they do is translating the acquired knowledge in to actions. Under this second category of practice, effective executives develop action plans, take responsibility for their decisions and communication and focus on opportunities instead of problems. The third category of practice is related to accountability; thus, they run productive meetings and they capitalize on “We than “I” in their organization ( p.1). 

After synthesizing  Drucker ‘s ( 2004) article “What makes an effective executive” , I wanted to categorize these characteristics into three of the four leadership frameworks Bolman and Deal (2013) identified. The following table presents the structural, human resource, Political and symbolic  lenses which can help me categorize the leadership characteristics. 

The objectives of this article are the following.

  • To situate the leadership characteristics synthesized by Drucker ‘s (2004) in to structural, human resource, and political frameworks identified by Bolmans and Deal (2013)
  •  To relate the characteristics of effective leaders to   teaching and learning practices.   

 

Effective leaders’ characteristics as viewed from the three leadership frameworks  

Drucker ‘s (2004) article identified eight characteristics of effective executives have. The descriptions and the examples given show that these executives apply different frames as necessary in managing their organizations.  This analysis is an attempt to analyze the practices of effective executives described by Drucker (2004) through three organizational frames: structural, human resource and political frames (Bolman and Deal, 2013). The structural frame aims at meeting goals of organizations efficiently. For that to happen, it minimizes the risk of unpredictable problems by putting in place clear and simple organizational structure, and strategy. It also assigns divisions of labor by specialization (Bolman and Deal, 2013). The human resource frame focuses on aligning employees needs and organizational requirements. Thus, a clear understanding of employees’ needs, feelings as well as skills is necessary before expecting them to excel in their performance. Thus, managers that follow this frame spend a considerable amount of time understanding and building relationship than authoritatively commanding employees. Empowerment is also another characteristic of this frame (Bolman and Deal, 2013). The political frame emphasizes dealing with group of people with different interests and agenda, especially in the face of scarce resources in their organizations. Negotiation, bargaining, coalition, power relationships and conflict resolution are key elements in this frame (Bolman and Deal, 2013).    

As Drucker (2004) observed, the first question effective managers ask is “What needs to be done?”. This question helps managers to distinguish between what they want to do and what needs to be done for the success of their organizations. Then they prioritize the needs and focus on the most important need. If that need requires them to sharpen their knowledge and skills, they will immediately begin learning with their team to successfully address that identified need (Drucker ,2004). Empowering oneself and others to achieve the desired result is an example of a human resource frame (Bolman and Deal, 2013). Being cognizant of the fact that a manager is not necessarily best suited to address every aspect of the identified need, (just like what the American best CEO, Jack Walsh is exemplified in the article), an effective manager delegates responsibility. Following a structural framework, the above CEO, for instance, was able to demonstrate effectiveness by assigning responsibilities to a specifically identified organizational element and establishing schedules. This implies that tasks and authorities are manageably shared, and measurable outcomes and accountabilities are identified (Bolman and Deal, 2013). 

Another related question that effective executives ask is whether what is identified as a priority is the right thing for the enterprise. “They do not ask if that is the right thing for the shareholders, the executives or the employees” (Drucker,2004, p .3).  If this can be interpreted from the political frame points of view, one may argue that focusing on the priority of the actual need of an organization may help to down play possible conflicts or power struggle that may arise among visible and hidden actors of an organization (Kingdon ,1997). On the other hand, I am tempted to question this practice of only considering what the enterprise needs without asking what employees need as a limitation. With this regard, detaching the enterprise needs and its employees needs as structural framework promotes may have undesirable consequences to meet organizationally prioritized goals and needs. This is so because effectiveness partly results from aligning organizational and employees’ needs (Bolman & Deal ,2013).     

Furthermore, developing action plans based on the information gathered using the above questions is also the other quality of effective executives.  In doing that, they deeply think about “desired results, probable restrains, check in points, and implications” (Drucker ,2004, p. 4).  This reveals the application of structural framework that capitalizes the importance of clarity of goals, roles, responsibilities and coordination for effective performance of organizations (Bolman & Deal ,2013). While translating knowledge and information in to their action plans, these executives also think about benchmarks to measure the achievement of desired goals and establishing monitoring and evaluation mechanisms to enhance efficiency. From structural frame point of view, this helps to measure whether the resources invested to implement the action plans are efficiently used. Drucker (2004, p. 3) asserted " .... organizations whether government agencies, businesses, or nonprofits are time wasters”. If that is a fair conclusion, action plans can then be good sources of reference to evaluate and even control the efficient use of time in an organization.

What is more, having check in points in the different phases of the implementation of the action plans opens a door for organizations to learn from their practices and errors. As exemplified in this article, successful executives typically evaluate their action plans and implementations at least two times i.e. in the middle and at the end of a project (Drucker ,2004). This clearly implies that the executives mentioned in this article believe in organizational learning. Their organizational learning could be single -loop learning in which plan implementers at different levels modify their actions to fill the gap between the observed and desired outcomes (Argyris, 1977).  This helps to fix inconsistencies and errors. Even though there is no narration or evidence whether the executives observed by Drucker (2004) use single loop learning; it is important to note that this type of organizational learning usually tackles the symptoms not the real causes of a problem (Argyris, 1977). This kind of organizational learning also holds a simplistic cause and effect relationship and connections between problems and solutions, thus, double loop learning is preferred (Argyris,1977).   

 

Another desirable quality of effective executives is their "focus on opportunities rather than problems” (Drucker ,2004, p .5). Even though problem identification and problem-solving skills are necessary to achieve organizational goals, seeing problems as opportunities to effectively change their practices is more crucial for successful executives. They systematically appraise their activities and exploit the results to better their enterprise. The successful executives observed by Drucker (2004) are willing to   adapt   their “mind-set, values, perception, mood, or meaning “whenever change is necessary (p.5). They are also ready to assess and reengineer their structure, processes, products, and technology as needed. They also use the available human resources, among others, efficiently and effectively.   The practices of the executives reported in this article show that successful managers do not only exploit the existing good practices but also explore new possibilities. For March (1991) exploration refers to risk taking, flexibility, variation and experimentation [while]… exploitation refers to choose, production, selection and implementation” (p.1). March advises organizations to maintain a balance between exploration and exploitation to survive. Nevertheless, apart from mentioning the use of both exploration and exploitation for organizational learning, Drucker (2004) has not accounted for how these successful executives balanced the two elements for their organizational learning.

The conception of failure as an opportunity for positive change based on learning (Drucker ,2004) is different from the practice of executives who play a blame game when errors or problems occur (Bolman & Deal, 2013). Drucker (2004) alluded that successful managers take responsibility for the decision they made individually and collectively; they do not externalize the causes of failure to others. They reevaluate their decisions periodically and try to identify the real cause for not achieving the desired results. As reported by Drucker, effective executives exert efforts to identify the root of a problem and long-lasting solution. This is an indication that these executives benefit from double loop learning which is characterized by detecting errors and correcting them in ways that involve modification of an organization’s mission, underlying norms, policies and objectives (Argyris,1977).

 

 

In his narration of the practices of these executives, Drucker (2004) pointed out that successful managers do not only take responsibility for the failure of their subordinates but also do not tolerate employees’ inabilities to carry out tasks as expected. On the other hand, these executives are sensitive to their employees’ feelings and needs (Drucker ,2004).  Thus, they apply human resource frame as needed. For example, if a promoted employee is not fit for the position he/she is assigned, he/she will be given a chance to go back to his/her former position and work instead of firing him/her. Such consideration helps employees to feel safe in their work place (Bolman & Deal, 2013) and learn from their weaknesses (Argyris,1977).

 

               Another interpretation of this measure for taking back unsatisfactorily performing employees to their former responsibilities or demoting them could be a systematic strategy manager, who operate under political frame, use. When conflict occurs, managers may want to make their bargain appear positive and fair to employees at a face value, but their hidden action could be to push those employees voluntarily resign from the new power given to them.

 

Drucker (2004) also underscored that effective executives delegate responsibilities; thus, decision making is made at various levels. Unlike top -down decision making exercised by managers following structural frame, effective managers involve “colleagues, superiors, subordinates and peers” in decision making and they make sure the agreed decisions are communicated to every concerned body. (p.5). They do not assume that they are experts in every aspect of their organizations' operations. Thus, they apply one of the structural framework assumptions which requires executives “increase efficiency and enhance performance through specialization and appropriate division of labor” (Bolman & Deal, 2013, p .45).

Involving employees such as relevant professionals and front-line supervisors in decision making, if seen from a political frame, means expanding the possibility of sharing different kinds of power to the community of the organization. For instance, those who are experts, well informed and knowledgeable in specialized domain of the organization, like accounting, may enjoy power that comes from their expertise which could be an area the executives are not adequately qualified for (Bolman and Deal, 2013). 

Relating the characteristics of effective leaders to teaching and learning

The practices of the effective executives, which I have tried to analyze using the three organizational frameworks, have implications for teaching and course leadership responsibilities college instructors have.      

Just like the first question effective executives ask, instructors need to begin teaching a new course by identifying what their students need to know, want to know and lack. This kind of needs analysis help them narrow down the gap between what students need and lack to meet their course objectives. In other words, this helps shape   their lesson planning, teaching and assessment material selection and design processes.    

As it is stated above, effective executives translate their information about the needs, and goals of their organizations in to action plans. Similarly, college instructors and course leaders need to create documents to record their planned actions, procedures, deadlines, reflections and evaluations of their actions. Teaching and classroom related philosophies, specific course related policies, required resources and expected outcomes can also be included in the action plan documents which may be available in a traditional paper document format or electronically in the form of a classroom website. This helps to clarify what they intend to do and focus their actions to meet their goals and transparently communicate them to other stakeholders both for developmental and judgmental purposes.

Effective executives, as described above, use top down decision-making approach whenever necessary and they also make decisions collectively by involving subordinates and front-line supervisors. The implications of these decision-making approaches to college instructors teaching and course leadership roles include the following. As instructors, they may use top down decision making to direct students learning successfully when students lack the competence or confidence to make decisions on the different aspects of their learning. This, in turn, offers opportunities for them to display their expertise in the course they teach by building students confidence in them as effective teachers. As course leaders followed by other instructors, they are responsible to make sure the top down decisions made by the college and their department (like using a departmentally prescribed course syllabus, course and supplementary teaching materials, rubrics and evaluation instruments) are implemented. Even though there may be strong administrative push form the college to standardize syllabus, courses, quizzes, rubrics and evaluation instruments, I believe teachers should find ways to participate students in their learning decision making activities whenever feasible. In my previous experience, I have had the opportunity to include students’ voices in my teaching and assessment practices. For example, I and my students had negotiated assignment deadlines, developed together peer editing and revision checklists for my writing classes, and adjusted teaching styles.

Accountability and delegating responsibilities are the other practices of effective executives. As a classroom instructor, the implication one may draw from these practices is that he/she should find ways to make his/her students be accountable for their learning. Promoting and integrating autonomous and independent learning strategies in their courses could be an attempt in this regard. Similarly, students could be delegated to shoulder and discharge different learning responsibilities; assigning different and specific roles for group work and projects could be an instance along this line.

When effective executives delegate responsibilities, they carefully   select individuals who have the necessary abilities to perform the assigned tasks. Viewing this from human resource frame, one may cogently argue that this is an action taken to appropriately align employees’ skills with the organizational requirements. Taking this aspect of human resource frame to a classroom practice, one of the things an instructor may do in his/her first-class period is establishing positive relationship with his/her students. This makes a difference in their comfort level and confidence to engage in their learning. Learning their names and taking time to know what they are interested in are good starting points to establish conducive learning environment.

It was indicated that effective executives focus on opportunities than on problems. They learn from experiences and failure. Similarly, teachers can exploit the available data to deeply learn about their and school practices. The data sources are many but some of them include students’ scores in both classroom and standardized tests, teachers’ teaching effectiveness evaluations, and other relevant sources of data. Teachers and schools’ effort as well as commitment to have double loop learning from relevant data help to enhance teaching and learning qualities.       

Conclusion

Leadership actions may differ depending on different contextual factors. However, the main goal of all leaders is to achieve their organizations’ missions as effectively and efficiently as possible. To do this, most effective leaders, according to Drucker (2004), share the eight characteristics mentioned above. This characteristic of effective executives which have implications to teaching and learning can also be categorized  using structural, human resource and political leadership frames (Bolman and Deal ,2013).     

References

[1] Argyris, C. (1977). Double loop learning in organizations. Harvard Business Review, 55, 115-125.

[2] Bolman, L, G.,&  Deal, T, E.  (2013). Reframing organizations: Artistry, choice, and leadership.(5th ed). The Jossey-Bass Business & Management Series. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

[3] Drucker, P. F. (2004, June). What makes an effective executive. Harvard Business Review, 82(6), 25–33.

[4] Kingdon, J. (1997). Wrapping things up. In Public policy and higher education (pp. 32-40). Needham Heights, MA: Pearson Custom Pub.13 (5) 

[5] March, J, G. (1991). Exploration and exploitation in organizational learning. Organization Science ,2, 71-87.