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Leadership – Where we get it WRONG


When answering the question “who is a great Leader?” it doesn’t take much for the world to lock in on three common measures:

  1. Success – those that have been deemed to have achieved a mission they set out on.
  2. Size – those that have led organisations of considerable size (eg: their big school, their big church, their growing organisation, or their big multi million dollar business).
  3. Self Esteem – those that can confidently stand, speak and inspire us with their words.


But have we got our priorities of measuring “who is a great leader” all wrong?

Over two decades of working in the education space, I am often disillusioned at the default settings used for selection of leaders. Be it the flavour of the month keynoting as conference speakers, the high-decile high school principal selected to lead their local COL (Communities of Learning), or those that by their own self promotion head up boards and panels making decisions about the future of the education sector. I imagine this would not be much different in the business sector. Often us so-called ‘commoners’ pay hundreds or thousands of dollars to attend inspiring conferences, or we are encouraged onto leadership programmes where we can learn what made them successful and go and do likewise. Often our underlying motives are driven by the longing for a better and bigger return (money or numbers) or feeling important in our status under the guise of changing the world.

BUT have we ever taken time to critique the measures when it comes to making a “who is a great leader” decision?

For example, to dismiss the 3 common measures used above:

  1. Success – ‘Success is subjective.’ That great school principal whose school is rated highest in NCEA achievement with a growing school roll may just be working with the world’s most already advantaged children, from already advantaged backgrounds! Have we ever stopped to unpack the claims of success a little?
  2. Size – ‘With a great marketing plan, we are all buying it!’ With word of mouth being influenced these days at the touch of a social media button we are quickly seeing the ability for people to become popular in the moment. Why do crowds rush to Black Friday sales? Why did so many people really vote for Trump? Why are people bending over backwards to live in-zone for that leading school on the NCEA tables…..need I say more!
  3. Self Esteem – ‘Beware, some people really do believe their own bullshit!’ Just because the loudest person in the room has the microphone and is telling a convincing story and tickling your emotions doesn’t omit that they might be well trained in stroking their own ego! Some leaders would be better off as salespeople as the product they are selling is often not as it seems.


There is a Māori whakataukī (proverb) that I strongly believe should direct our measure when it comes to the “who is a great leader?” question:

‘He aha te mea nui o te ao. He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata – What is the most important thing in the world? It is people, it is people, it is people.’

May I therefore suggest 3 alternative measures by which we should question “who is a great Leader?” 

  1. Servant – How do they serve their people? We often think leadership is about being out front calling people forward, but what if it is more about getting behind them, carrying them when needed, cheering them on, celebrating and recognising THEIR success. There is a lot to be said about servant leadership. Often these people go unnoticed, unheard, because they are in the trenches with their people and not out front and noticeable. If you want to find these leaders, you need to go looking a little harder than whose trending on social media. Look for the people they serve that testify “my life is changed because of them”. Look for the school principal who stands at the school gate every day and their children run up to them to hug them goodbye. And if you’re a popularity leader and you’re scared this servant leadership approach might lower your popularity status, may I draw your attention to one of greatest teachers in servant leadership of all time – Jesus….and by the way he still has a pretty big following!
  2. Sensitive – How do they listen to their people and the needs of their people? How much do they care about the wellbeing of those under their care or those that are helping them in their mission? Unfortunately many of our recognised leaders have got to the top by standing on the heads of others and using their people as pawns in their game without a thought for how they might be feeling. Wellbeing of the people in their care (their workers and the people they serve) is unfortunately placed secondary to their mission. 
  3. Supportive – How do they support their people? How do the needs of those they serve come before their own agenda? Do their personal values prioritize people over profit, quality over quantity? Has their productivity been achieved by investing in their people and the culture of the team, or instead by screwing down the costs and overworking their people to achieve a bigger personal gain?


So next time you are sitting around making decisions about “who is a great leader”, I encourage you to throw out some of the common measures of leaders who are trending, and go looking under a few more rocks….

And if you’re a leader reading this, remember to consider what you are teaching your followers and our next generation of children and young people through your leadership style you employ. 

Having recently finished up nearly 20 years of serving people in the last organisation I led, my recently appointed team manager was a bit disappointed in my departure to say the least! One of the reasons she took the job was because she was looking forward to working alongside me and learning about my leadership style. A bit bemused by her positive attribution to my leadership style (as I always saw myself as the aging youth worker that got put in charge of flying the plane) she spoke a lot to the leadership culture I deployed which featured open communication, a culture of care, and many other qualities that made this one of the best teams she had ever worked for. Therefore I’m now honored to be her appointed leadership mentor.

Here at Ngawai Enterprises we are all about enhancing leadership with the best interests of the people you serve in mind.

Check out our website or send us an email to [email protected] if you’re interested in finding out more about our services and how we can help you.

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