Thoughts on Kindergarten and Leadership

In a previous post, I wrote that the development of effective leaders must be prioritized if governmental public health agencies are to be transformed. A large body of literature exists on the styles and qualities associated with successful leaders. After having read that literature (admittedly a small portion), it seems to me that a lot of brain power has been dedicated to:

1) Discovering that the most effective leaders are decent, thoughtful people, and

2) Figuring out how to turn current leaders into decent, thoughtful people.

Robert Gates states, and I agree, that real leadership is a rare commodity (1). Why is that so and can we change it?

Transactional and transformational leadership styles are commonly contrasted in the literature. Two types of transactional leadership include the laissez-faire and contingent reward styles (2).

Laissez-faire leaders take a hands-off approach and have been described as, “marked by a general failure to take responsibility for managing (3).” As you can imagine, this is not the most effective form of leadership.

The health director of one agency I worked for was a laissez-faire leader. His aloof and arrogant nature served as a cover for his inadequacies. During one emergency response, the incident commander said of him, “I can’t get him to make a decision. He’s afraid to upset his political friends.” This director’s inactions resulted in the creation of workarounds that slowed the response.

The contingent reward leader, “contracts [the] exchange of rewards for effort, promises rewards for good performance, [and] recognizes accomplishments (2).” This style is also described as being, “based on the setting of clear objectives and goals for the followers as well as the use of either punishments or rewards in order to encourage compliance with these goals.

Contingent reward leadership is pretty typical in current work settings. But, as Bass (2) points out, the use of rewards and penalties depends on whether a leader actually has control over them and whether employees want the rewards or fear the penalties. Bass views transactional leadership as a setup for mediocrity, which makes sense if you’ve worked in governmental public health. There, the most frequent reward for doing a good job is more work—and it is likely the work of your colleague in the next cubicle over who spends her day viewing social media sites because she knows there are no true consequences for poor performance.

Transformational leadership is regarded as the superior form of leadership, and superior leadership performance, “occurs when leaders broaden and elevate the interests of their employees, when they generate awareness and acceptance of the purposes and mission of the group, and when they stir their employees to look beyond their own self-interest for the good of the group (2).”

In his book, A Passion for Leadership (1), Robert Gates says that leaders who want to bring about reform must:

  • Envision and articulate a new way forward
  • Demand and demonstrate transparency
  • Make it known that candor is career enhancing, not career destroying
  • Send the message that negligence, incompetence, and obstructionism will not be tolerated
  • Empower the strong, help those who show promise, and get rid of the deadwood
  • Win the support of those in the trenches who deliver the mission of the organization
  • Give credit to others
  • Recognize the importance of inclusiveness
  • Monitor progress
  • Keep their egos under control
  • Have integrity, courage, and self-discipline
  • Avoid intellectual and professional intimidation
  • Be able to compromise, and
  • Not take oneself too seriously

So, how do we instill such traits in individuals? Through his poem, All I Ever Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, Robert Fulghum reminds us that, as five-year olds, we were given an excellent foundation for leadership. His verse talks about playing fair, cleaning up your own messes, saying you’re sorry, and sticking together. But something happens to us as we grow up. Those values lose out to self-interests.

Society is very good at feeding the dark side of our egos—that pesky, fearful aspect of us that seeks out personal glory and superiority to ensure its survival. Society is not so good at strengthening, as the Dalai Lama describes them, our shared secular ethics such as compassion, respect for others, kindness, and taking responsibility.

Some groups are developing school curricula for teaching about secular ethics and character. That is a necessary step, but we also need a paradigm shift in our thinking about what it means to be a leader. We need to move away from equating celebrity and braggadocio, ascendancy and potency with leadership. In her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain suggests that the Great Recession might have been avoided had corporations, run by aggressive risk-taking extroverts, listened to the more cautious introverts in their midst.

We need to get away from the idea of what Zander and Zander (5) call scarcity-thinking, “which is the undiscriminating, ongoing attitude that life is dangerous and that one must put one’s energy into looking out for Number One.”

And we need to make it personally, professionally, and socially desirable to place the common good ahead of personal gain, and to define personal success in terms of helping others achieve their full potential, not just oneself.

If we can accomplish such a transformation, maybe then true leaders won’t be as rare as unicorns.

 Your turn

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Happy Summer Solstice!  Kathy



1) Gates, R. A passion for leadership: lessons on change and reform from fifty years of public service. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf; 2016, p. 157.

2) Bass, B.M. From transactional to transformational leadership: learning to share the vision. Organizational Dynamics. Winter 1990;18(3):19-31.

3) Eagly, A.H., Johannesen-Schmidt, M.C., van Engen, M.L. Transformational, transactional, and laissez-faire leadership styles: a meta-analysis comparing women and men. Psychological Bulletin. 2003;129(4):569-591.

4) Cain, S. Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. New York, NY: Broadway Books; 2013, p. 164.

5) Zander, R.S. and Zander, B. The art of possibility. New York, NY: Penguin Books; 2002.

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