What is leadership? A doctoral student’s perspective.

Evolving as a Leader

Leadership is a process of constantly trying, reflecting, and growing (Kolb, 1984).  Developing as a leader involves so many puzzle pieces that create a unique picture depending on how we utilize them.  Ethics, social justice, plagiarism, reliability, and validity in the research process, are just a handful of areas to address as a scholar, researcher and leader.  .

Ethical Leadership

    Trevino, Hartman, & Brown (2000) chose a famous philosophical question when introducing their proposal that a moral person make a moral leader.  Plato asked, which extreme would you rather be: “an unethical person with a good reputation or an ethical person with a reputation for injustice?” Plato might have added, “or would you rather be perceived as ethically neutral–someone who has no ethical reputation at all ?”    

    This is a great way to begin a journey into the reflective process that is a critical part of leadership development and determining one’s ethical framework.  Trevino, Hartman & Brown (2000) note that there are two main factors upon which ethical leadership is determined; “perceptions of you as a moral person and perceptions of you as a moral manager” (Brown, 2000).   As with so many aspects of life, it is not enough to say that you are ethical, you must demonstrate it in your actions continuously over time. If a person is perceived as unethical in their personal lives, they are less likely to be trusted in their professional lives.  In fact, even organizations that are struggling can change with a commitment to the implementation of training in ethical leadership and continuing to consistently lead by example (Schraeder,Tears, & Jordan, 2005).

    As a budding scholar-practitioner, the entire academic and research process must be held to the highest ethical standard during completion of each step.  I like to live by the expression “begin as you intend to proceed.” Ethics is a constant process of making choices to do the right thing consistently. Plagiarism, short cuts to research which call into question the reliability and validity of research, inviting outside sources to do your work for you are all examples of unethical behavior that will negatively impact the value of the doctoral process, the degree itself and any work that proceeds from it.  One cannot live an unethical life and then suddenly become ethical. Again, it is a process not a spontaneous occurrence.

Integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is looking. Ethics is a choice to act with integrity (Brickley, Smith, Zimmerman, 2002).  Throughout my doctoral journey as in life, I intend to find strength to have courageous conversations, to stay true to my integrity and to lead by example in all I do so as to inspire others to do the same.

External Impact

    First and foremost, I have to thank my family for being a great support to me as I go

through this doctoral journey.  It has not been easy. As a single person who is working 60 + hours a week and managing a household, I feel at times at my wits end.  My family has been there through many phone calls, visits and holidays where I am exhausted and have helped me relax and keep me on track.  I also feel support from my colleagues and students at work which keeps me going. I am extremely grateful that I have this support system in place.

What is hardest for me is that the administration at my school doesn’t recognize the intensity of what I am doing and instead wants to try to pile on more.  That is a major frustration that leads me to consider alternatives as I reach the conclusion of my doctorate. I am at the point where I feel like I will do whatever it takes so no one gets in the way of its completion.  I wish administration could be more supportive so that I did not feel like I needed to make such a choice. The administration at my school has taught me more about what not to do as a leader to keep great talent and a positive school climate than they have taught me positives about leadership. Sometimes, those who lead poorly can have an equally strong impact on one’s learning as those who lead well.  I am taking my lessons as they come and I am working to put myself in the best position while keeping my focus on my end goal with relentless drive. No matter what I will succeed, whether because or despite others.

Growth as a Leader

    I have learned that leadership is the culmination of one’s experiences, reflection on those experiences and how one chooses to interpret them in their environment.  There is no one right way to lead or one great theory that works better than another (Kruse, 2013).  If this were true, there would not constantly be new ones sprouting up.  Everyone searches for answers, to understand the world around them and how to control as much of it as they can.  This is biological and socialized, especially in the Western world. Some people are able to lead others through positive transformational methods that inspire people to join in the vision.  However, there are also transformational leaders that become dictators who get whole nations to believe in and fight for a vision.

    Power is seductive.  It makes us wonder what to do with it when we have it.  We have many choices and only our character, influences, personal ethics, and perceived consequences will determine the specific blend of decisions we make.  Society reminds us what is popular, preferred and promoted. It also serves to keep in line those qualities that are less preferred. Further, some social, racial, gender and economic classes are held to different standards within those societal norms.  

    Choosing to lead is no insignificant matter for consideration.  In the worst of times, it will show you and others exactly what you are made of.  It will test your will daily. Again, there is no one right way to lead. Leadership has conditions within a given environment.  When the right leader matches those conditions and thrives in that environment, they will be successful, for better or worse. In some ways, the more I have studied leadership, the more I feel myself a reluctant leader.  Sometimes, I wonder how one leads well in the world we currently live. I enjoy observing the world around me. I am a born scientist in that way. The more I observe though, the more questions I have than answers. I realize that most people do not stop long enough to observe let alone reflect.  Leadership so often looks like pandering to the public, to donors, to people that want a piece of something from someone (Landa & Tyson, 2017).  This is disappointing in so many ways, but I fear it may be a symptom of the very sick society we have developed into over time.

    My growth as a person over time has been based on observation, experience, reflection and action.  Sometimes I have been a follower, other times a leader. I have often been held to ridiculous standards by others and at times by myself.  Here are some of the things I’ve learned. I have found that there is no real benefit in doing more if you sacrifice the excellence of what you are doing now.  Character should never be compromised for anyone. It is better to walk away than to live with self-hate. Everyone should walk through life with a vision bigger than themselves, but driven by the force of their own experience and passion.  Each day one should accomplish something they can feel good about as a witness to the day’s existence and significance. People should not wait to be ready to do hard things, they should just get started instead. Most importantly, we should not try to change the world, we should try to find out the conditions that caused the discontent and resolve them.  

Peace does not exist.  Life is a struggle as it was meant to be.  Though humans spend so much time trying to deny it, we are part of the animal kingdom and like other animals, we are always searching for greater certainty, more resources, comfort and power (Leotti, Iyengar, Ochsner, 2010).  Charles Darwin in the book On the Origin of Species showed us that every species survives and evolves because of struggle within a given environment.  Having spent time in the Galapagos Islands, it was fascinating to see how an iguana could adapt to swim for food because of scarcity of land resources, while their land dwelling counterparts continue to hunt only on land on another island whose resources are more plentiful.   

Easiness in existence, is not a right given to any organism on the planet.  So, people should accept that growth comes from struggle instead of spending so much time resisting.  That saved time could be spent using our large highly developed brains finding ways to really grow as co-exist.  We are all connected. No decision is made in a vacuum. As leaders we must never forget that we’ve been given an opportunity to represent others.  We can do this with integrity or with debauchery. Being human, the decision is always just a series of choices. The impact of those choices determines how we evolve within our environment over time and the kinds of leaders we choose and become.

To say it has been an interesting journey is an understatement for me.  Without a doubt, I value this new experience in my life and I look forward to how it will change me.  I enjoy learning from others, offering my thoughts, observations, and reflections. My professors have pushed my perceptions and opened my mind.  I appreciate the struggle and the evolution of myself as a person and as a leader.




Brickley, J. A., Smith Jr, C. W., & Zimmerman, J. L. (2002). Business ethics and organizational architecture. Journal of Banking & Finance, 26(9), 1821-1835.

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development (Vol. 1). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Kruse, K. (2013). What is leadership. Forbes Magazine, 3.

Landa, D., & Tyson, S. A. (2017). Coercive Leadership. American Journal of Political Science, 61(3), 559-574.

Leotti, L. A., Iyengar, S. S., & Ochsner, K. N. (2010). Born to choose: The origins and value of the need for control. Trends in cognitive sciences, 14(10), 457-463.

Schraeder, M., Tears, R. S., & Jordan, M. H. (2005). Organizational culture in public sector organizations: Promoting change through training and leading by example. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 26(6), 492-502.

Trevino, L. K., Hartman, L. P., & Brown, M. (2000). Moral person and moral manager: How executives develop a reputation for ethical leadership. California management review, 42(4), 128-142.


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