What is a Leader?

– Jeanne M. Slattery

JMS 0814

Jeanne Slattery

As I write this, I am in Harrisburg. I am on the executive committee of my state organization, a group with almost 3000 members and a budget of more than $1m per year (when our foundation and Political Action Committee are included).

We are hiring a new executive director for our organization, which has me thinking about who we want to hire. We want (in no particular order) someone who:

Manages the business well

  • Understands and appreciates psychologists and their values, goals, and perspectives on the world
  • Is widely read, recognizing problems in management and organizations, as well as strategic ways to respond to such problems
  • Identifies problems early, thinks critically and logically about them, and responds to problems before they become PROBLEMS
  • Thinks outside the box rather than doing something because we – or he or she – has always done it that way
  • Manages our finances conservatively, yet not overly so
  • Recognizes the resources, products, and services that will make our organization more effective at its job
  • Responds to problems ethically, recognizing that both means and ends matter

Communicates effectively

  • Meets and talks easily with new people and diverse constituencies with differing goals and perspectives
  • Listens well to people of diverse values and goals and is willing to be influenced by new perspectives
  • Writes well, thoughtfully, and quickly
  • Speaks easily in small groups and larger ones, both when all is going well or when the agency under fire
  • Assertively expresses concerns, thoughts, and proposed solutions

Handles people well

  • Builds a strong and creative team and healthy alliances, both within our organization and outside it
  • Delegates well, while maintaining appropriate oversight
  • Handles dissent well and can listen to different perspectives without taking differing opinions personally – even welcoming different perspectives
  • Identifies others’ strengths and helps build them further
  • Recognizes others’ weaknesses and helps them and the organization accommodate to these
  • Creates a strong, cohesive, growth-oriented organization that has little destructive conflict (as opposed to constructive conflict)

Has strong self-management skills

  • Is confident, while recognizing that many problems are not simple and easily-solved
  • Handles stress and others’ stress well
  • Enjoys – or doesn’t mind – travel
  • Adapts to and uses new technologies readily
  • Seeks and finds opportunities to grow

No small task! Most of us, no matter our strengths, can do some of these things well and would have difficulties with others.

Many of these attributes are also ones that Clarion will want in our new president. We also want our new president to recognize the healing that our university still needs to do. Our new president will, of course, do some of these things well and will have difficulties with others. We hope our new president can play to his or her strengths, while finding ways to compensate for weaknesses. (Everyone has weaknesses.)

Many of these are also skills that we want to see in our students, although different fields may require additional specific skills. Frequently, my psychology students believe that all they will need to do is listen and “give advice.” I need to help my students recognize the range of skills that they will need, build the skills that are currently relative weaknesses, and strengthen those that are relative strengths. Those of my students who have difficulties with paperwork or finances, for example, will need to hire staff who can help them be successful in these areas. They will need to find ways to handle stress well without distancing themselves from the problems they will face.

Clearly applicants need to have specific knowledge about the organization they hope to join. Our future president will need to know our university. Nonetheless, many of these skills are built in the course of a strong General Education: careful, critical thinking; understanding and appreciating a diversity of perspectives, values, and approaches; written and oral communication skills; and ethical thinking (Slattery, 2018). We need to help our students and other constituencies recognize the ways that our General Education curriculum helps our students build these skills and helps prepare them for future challenges and responsibilities both inside and outside the workplace.

The US has increasingly emphasized job training at the university level; however, the national conversations on job training have focused on specific skills needed in a job/profession/career, not the more general skills that are also needed (e.g., empathy, critical thinking, ethical thinking, problem solving under pressure). As we hire a president, as we prepare to graduate another class of seniors, as we network with our community, let’s make sure that we consider, require, and build ALL of the job-related skills needed.


Slattery, J. M. (2018, Spring). “I don’t work in the field.” Eye on Psi Chi, 22(3), 14-16. Retrieved from https://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.psichi.org/resource/resmgr/eye_pdf/22_3SpringEye-Web.pdf

Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She loves teaching and learning and describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has published three books, Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy; Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill; and most recently, Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Translating research into clinical practice. She can be contacted at jslattery@clarion.edu


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