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Leadership is vital in all organisations. As the writers discuss on the subject of Cultivating Leaders in this issue of CDTL Brief, find out if leaders are made or born, about the role education in nurturing leaders and who or what is responsible for developing ethical leaders.

April 2003, Vol. 6 No. 4 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Cultivating Leadership & Stewardship
Dr Marshall M. Lih
National Science Foundation 1
Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.


There is no greater need in education today than developing leaders of the society who can meet the complex and multifaceted challenges of the 21st Century. The need is global and covers all fields of endeavours and all levels of the society.

In countries where industry and economy need to be developed, people with technical and financial backgrounds generally come to the fore. In others where environment, health, privacy and human rights were major issues, professionals with legal, political and public health expertise are in high demand. Most of all, in an age where all these technical and socio-economic issues are intertwined, the need for people, with a mixture of knowledge, talents, and skills from the various relevant fields, becomes increasingly important.


Thus the first requirement for leadership is the ability to integrate. This goes beyond the mere crossing of disciplines, but also extends to the collaboration between academic and industrial sectors, merging of research innovation and education, working in teams of people with diverse ethnic, philosophical, gender, cultural and national backgrounds. This is not a new revelation or simply a fashionable cliché, but was actually observed long time ago by a well-known educator, J. Harland Cleveland, that “integration is what is higher in higher education.”

Making Choices

Being a leader is also about making choices, a deliberate and proactive act. Good leaders make wise and timely choices while there are still options. Others delay and drag their feet until they no longer have to choose because there is only one option left to be adopted. That is not making a decision since they are now forced into the only route available.

In making choices, one must guard against conventional thinking or instinctive reaction. For example, a job with a good salary, benefit, job security and working environment may not be the best option even though, by conventional wisdom, it seems ideal. Quite often one can make more of a difference by taking a start-up job involving a noble cause and greater challenges.

In terms of interpersonal relationship, direct reaction such as tit-for-tat has proven to be not the best course of action since it is predictable and often perpetuates the same kind of mindless feud and revenge between parties, as the saying “an eye for an eye makes the whole world go blind” suggests. Instead, a thoughtful and measured response can be more effective. Sometimes it takes a great deal of courage and deliberateness to turn the other cheek, to go the extra mile or two miles, or to repay rudeness with kindness, but it has proven to work beautifully well.

Accountability and Stewardship

In a free society, the idea of accountability comes with the privilege of making choices. It says that one is in charge of making choices within an acceptable range and is competent to make them wisely. He or she also needs to consider both long-term and short-term consequences in making such choices. Once made, one has to accept the responsibility that comes with it.

The concept of accountability and stewardship is far from being merely a politically correct reaction to the current corporate scandals in some countries such as the U.S. In fact, it was a favourite topic in Jesus’ parables in the Gospels two thousand years ago. It basically says that we need to be good stewards of the material, intellectual, emotional and human resources that are entrusted to us, and that we are always accountable to somebody, either a higher authority (civil, military and/or spiritual) or people who work for us or are served by us. Like loyalty, account­ability is also a two-way street.

For example, even when one owns a business all by himself or herself, he or she is still accountable to the customers, suppliers and/or employees without whose patronage or help the business could not exist. We are also accountable to the society from which we derive much support from the infrastructure. In short, everyone in a society is always mutually accountable to one another. An employee is accountable to his/her employer to do a good job; the employer is accountable to the employees by providing reasonable pay, job security, proper treatment, working condition and advancement opportunity.

Leaders or Boss

In general, people tend to confuse being a leader with being a boss, or regard a boss automatically being a leader. But the two are not necessarily the same or equal. In fact we have seen, more often than we would like, some bosses exercising very poor leadership or no leadership at all. In contrast, sometimes we are pleasantly surprised that a leadership vacuum can be filled by a team member without the title of a boss.

Then what is the difference between the two? According to the Fred Pryor Seminar organisation some years ago, a boss drives people while a leader coaches and develops them. A boss orders while a leader asks. Where a boss tends to depend mainly on authority, a leader builds and uses goodwill. While most bosses control people with fear, a leader inspires them with enthusiasm. A boss reacts; a leader responds. A boss takes credit while a leader gives it. When things go wrong, a boss tends to fix the blame while a true leader fixes the problem.

From this we can see that leadership has nothing to do with intimidating or policing people. It does not involve tricky moves such as keeping people ‘off balance’. It has everything to do with envisioning the future, exemplifying by one’s value and action, encouraging, empowering, energising and evangelising people. (Notice all the ‘e’ beginnings? That means ‘do it with ease’!)

‘Everyday Evangelism’ and Orchestrating Change

In Selling The Dream, Kawasaki 2 borrowed the religious term evangelism and used it in a secular context such as promoting one’s product, organisation or ideas and making a difference. In essence, everyday evangelism is spreading a cause or imparting one’s dream. It transfers a vision into a cause and gets people to share that cause. It yields dramatic, fundamental and long-lasting cultural changes. Just like what occurred on that fateful day recorded in the Acts of Apostles, Chapter 2, it generates selfless actions, sustains and grows. As the saying goes, the rest is history.

An effective leader is one that can mobilise people to such life-changing actions. It entails the steps of furrowing the ground before sowing the seeds that must be followed by watering and cultivation before finally harvesting. In that sense it is also orchestrating change. Just like the conductor of an orchestra, the leader works with various kinds of talents and tools to put on a powerful and harmonious performance.

By nature people resist change. Depending on the situation and people involved, a leader has the choice of making all the changes in one big step or in a series of small steps that are parts of the entire change. He or she should have the good sense to choose each step to be a battle small enough to win but large enough to matter.

Can Leadership Be Taught or Learned?

Just like creativity, there are all kinds of views or positions on the issue whether leadership can be formally taught or learned. The fact is that we can try to teach it; some get it while others do not. We normally think of schools of business and management being primary sources of leaders of the future. Actually there are at least two other types that have also produced effective leaders, at least in the American context. One is the military and military academies. Carter, Eisenhower, Marshall, Powell, et al. are but a few of the examples wherein military training and career have prepared them for civilian leadership as well. The other is mission-oriented seminaries and institutions.

Perhaps a more effective way to impart leadership is by deeds than by words. This is the essence of mentoring. In religious circles, it is often referred to as discipling wherein someone less experienced would spend some time following an exemplary person to see how he or she makes choices and deals with people and challenges on a daily basis. Likewise in the business or professional world, we are in need of leaders who can serve as mentors for the next generation. Unfortunately, many of our leaders are too busy to do that, or they themselves have value problems and cannot serve as role models.

Inspiration and Character Building

In the final analysis, leadership needs to be inspired. This was the reason why the word ‘cultivating’ was used in the title of this article—that leadership development goes beyond mere training and teaching. It requires a cultural change in a person not unlike the ‘born-again’ religious experience. It requires a different kind of thinking and value system. Some time ago, our schools stopped teaching values for whatever reasons. Up and down the corporate ladder, we now reap the ills of that decision.

We need to inspire and rebuild character that starts with integrity and perseverance. With that we can develop judgment that is the ability to distinguish right from wrong; to set priorities in using time, resource, and energy; to be wise in creating, transferring and applying knowledge; to exercise proper stewardship of our environment; and to care for the sick, the poor and the disadvantaged.

Leadership in this new century, and for future centuries, is indeed demanding. With vigorous cultivation, inspiration and character building, we shall succeed in meeting that challenge.


1 For identification purpose only. This article does not represent an official position of the National Science Foundation or the United States Government. The author is responsible for the content in its entirety.

2 Kawasaki, G. (1991). Selling The Dream. New York: Harper Collins.

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Inside this issue
Cultivating Leadership & Stewardship
Leaders: Born or Cultivated?
Teaching and Leadership
Cultivating Leaders in Learning Communities
Cultivating Leadership Qualities in Students
Developing Leaders
Education—The Journey to Moral Leadership and Moral Citizenship