School Leadership: Exploring the Influence of Context and Individual Characteristics on Leadership Skills

Students of Sentarum

Purni Susanto, School of Education, Flinders University

We all have heard statements such as, “He is born to be a leader” or “She is a natural leader”.

The trait perspective of leader suggests that certain individuals have special innate or inborn characteristics or qualities that make them a leader (Northouse, 2010). Some of the qualities were even set physical appearance (e.g. height) as the quality of leaders (Northouse, 2010). It was believed that people were born with great personality, and that only these great people can possess it.

People think that leadership is something that born and given by the God. To the most extreme, they believe that leaders are the God’s incarnation and therefore they behave more like God. Leaders have been specifically selected by the nature and sent to the world to rule on behalf of the Him. As selected figures, leaders have extraordinary characteristics and behaviour which distinguish them from the average people. So, leaders have outstanding personal qualities which according to Daft (2008, p.8) are hard to see but are very powerful. “These include things like enthusiasm, integrity, courage and humility.” This trait approach suggests that leadership is only for special, usually inborn, talent people (Northouse, 2010). 

However, some others contend that leadership skills can be learned and developed. Based on this opinion, everyone has a chance to be a leader as long as he or she is persistent, hardworking and self-determinant.

Legendary football coach Vince Lombardi once said, “Contrary to the opinion of many people, leaders are not born, leaders are made, and they are made by effort and hard work” (as cited in Lussier & Achua, 2010, p. 9).

This article will examine the importance of context as well as individual characteristics on leadership skills at school context. It argues that leadership skills are shaped as the result of the combination of personal capacities and the enhancement of situation. First, this essay will analyse the importance of personal characteristics in shaping the leadership personality. The importance of situation in creating leaders will be explored afterwards. Next, the contribution of both personal characteristics and cultural context (situation) will be discussed.         

Personal Characteristics of Leaders: Why and how they count?

Leaders’ good personality may add more value on their performance. Those who have a strong personality will be trusted and words they produced would likely to be heard and actions they show would inspire others compared to those who have less personality. Therefore, good individual characteristics will attract followers to keep stick on the leaders.  

To support the above argument, it is important to show some scholars’ works pertaining to that view. Maxwell (1999, p. ix) raises some provoking questions in relation to leadership personality. He examples of his questions are,

“What make people want to follow a leader? Why do people reluctantly comply with one leader while passionately following another to the ends of the earth?”

He then laconically argues that the answer lies in the character qualities of the individual person.

Maxwell’s (1999) interesting work of identifying leadership qualities, The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a leader is a very good start for this section. He puts forward around twenty one characteristics of leaders which will make leadership work well. His extensive list included many personality traits such as characters, charisma, commitment, communication, passion, courage, focus, initiative, relationship and many more.

Ault (2009) divides those characteristics into two: those things that innate as personal qualities such as characters, charisma and courage; and those which can be learned such as problem solving, listening, and communication skills. These identified characteristics enable leaders to “create the vision and pass this vision on to others through behaviour, attitude, verbal and nonverbal communication” (Ault, 2009, p.22). 

Similarly, Kouzes and Posner (as cited by Ault, 2009) identified characteristics of admired leaders. Through numerous studies throughout the world, four characteristics are mentioned in over half of all participants’ responses. The respondents believed that leaders need to be honest, forward looking, inspiring, and competent. Fullan (2001) also addressed his framework for leadership competences, which was based on five equal parts. These included having moral purposes, understanding the change process, building relationship, creating and sharing knowledge, and seeking coherent among ambiguity.        

In the previous time, leadership was mainly viewed on leader’s individual’s attributes (traits) such as intelligence, values and appearance and also their actions.

This belief was based on the universal theory of leadership or the “Great Man approach” (Daft, 2005, p. 47). The main principle of the theory is that some individuals are born with traits that make them natural leaders (Daft, 2005).

As food of thought, this section ends with analogizing the above type of leaders with the following illustration. Suppose that there are two organisations that are growing rapidly and are chaired by respectively leader A and B. Although these two leaders have almost the same skills; such as communication or managerial skills, these two leaders might be viewed differently by their subordinates. This is basically because they have quite different personality such as integrity and commitment. Leader A is more passionate and very attentive to his or her colleagues or subordinates; listening to their problems and caring and showing empathetic attitudes. On the other hand, leader B is less passionate and pays less attention to his or her people. The first type of leader will be more successful in a way that people will more respect to him or her. Therefore, the personal characteristics credit this personal type of leadership.    

 The Essence of Situation to Creating Leadership skills

Favourable situation can create better chance for someone to grow as an effective leader. For example, a leader who has been exposed to any difficult situations (e.g problems) will respond appropriately when another problem comes. The previous experiences make him or her alert to any danger or risk. By this time, it could be said that the leadership skills embodied have been successfully developed. 

In relation to the above view, a study conducted by Starr and White (2008) in Australian rural schools in Victoria revealed that the situation driven to rural principal’s hardship offers opportunity in disguise. The school leaders in some areas became more creative. They initiated what is termed as ‘self-help’ model to survive. They worked hand in hand to cope with lack of human resources.

For example, school leaders are working collectively to cover teaching, learning, leadership, and management requirements. It is very evident that the successful small rural principals are community builders who make strong partnerships with community operatives. Therefore, Fullan (2005) recognises the changes that challenge school leaders are facing and the dilemmas as the impact the current educational innovation.  

Leaders themselves respond differently based on any situation. Leaders by chance have opportunity to learn to respond to a wide range of problems and to solve those problems. This accumulation of experiments will in turn improve better qualities of their leadership.

In educational setting, Razik and Swanson (2001) suggest that the context of change and complexity enable leaders to manage incremental innovation and organise complex social structures to achieve the school vision. It is therefore, urgent to provide strong educational leadership that very flexible to any situations.

However, in some situations, one person may emerge as the leader, in other, she or he may not. Winston Churchill, for example, was great leader in war time but not so good in peace (Adair, 2003).  As Stephen Covey put in Principle Centre Leadership, “Without understanding the principles of a given task, people become incapacitated when the situation changes and different practices are required to be successful” (as cited in Hiebert &Klatt, 2001, p. 1). 

In a short statement, it can be argued that:

the school leadership styles can be influenced by the external factors.

These factors include high expectation of parents, rules and policies set up by government officers, the global change and rapid economic development and so forth. Regardless their drawbacks, the problems can enrich leadership skills which in turn make the school leaders develop their own capacities naturally.  

School Leadership: Interplay between Individual Characteristics and Cultural Context 

Fiedler as the first who concerned on situational leadership in 1951 proposed that someone’s leadership style is a reflection of personality and behaviour (Lussier & Achua, 2010). With regard to the leaders’ personality, it is relevant mention Vroom’s (2011) experience in his MBA class regarding their perception on how leaders were created. Surprisingly, when he asked the class, about more than fifty percent of the class believed that leaders are born, not made.

Based on this experience, Vroom concludes that many people still believe leaders were born naturally. Contrary to the experience, however, Vroom himself argues that leadership is something that people exercise, enact or display. Furthermore, he thinks that leadership roots in values and the skills can be learned.   

Smith and Piele (1989, p. 12) also challenge the idea that leaders are born. They claim that:

leadership competencies can be developed.

They argue that “major capacities and competencies of leadership can be learned”. They claim that everyone can grow to become a leader. It is because leadership capacities can be upgraded regardless of what educational background someone has. He or she does not need to be talented. They sharply contend, “We are all educable, at least if the basic desire to learn is there and we do not suffer from serious learning disorders”. Finally, they suggest that “whatever natural endowments we bring to the role of leadership, they can be enhanced; nurture is far more important than nature in determining who becomes a successful leader” (Smith & Piele, 1989, p. 12).

Similarly, Daft (2005) points out that based on research, traits or personal characteristics themselves are not enough and the appropriateness of traits depends on the leadership situation. A good leader in terms of personality may not be able to work successfully if he or she is not supported for instance by the staff or policies within the organisation. He also suggests that there is only a weak relationship between traits and leader success.

Finally, as revealed by Starr and White (2008), the rural school leaders in Victoria were open-minded, hard-working, high motivated as well as passionate. However, those personal capacities would not be much helpful without the situation forced and created them to survive and be excellent leaders in the schools.    


This article has argued that:

leadership is credited by both individual characteristics and the situation surrounding the leaders.

Both internal and external dimensions confluence and interrelate to shape leadership skills. Principals as school leaders cannot play their roles by chance without favourable situations. On the other hand, the situation (e.g. context) may not give opportunity to the school principals to grow as great leaders without having enough capacities to deal with problems. Therefore, it is most likely and very often the school principals who have basic leadership personalities can be trained to develop their personality to qualify for very good leaders.




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