How to Kill Your Leadership Potential

While I tend to write a lot about cultivating leadership, I was approached last week with a question – what kills leadership?

It didn’t take me long to know the answer.  Not just from observation but, admittedly, from personal experience.

Just like the reputation of a restaurant, it can take years to build in a positive sense.  There’s a lot that can go in to building the reputation, acquiring a customer, and then keeping the customer coming back.  But, it just takes one second to impact the customer with a negative experience, no matter what.

While there are many examples of poor leadership and even leaders who negatively use their status to sabotage the organization, there is a subtle phrase that, maybe unknowingly to the leader (and maybe not), robs him/her of being an effective leader:

“The (District Office, Central Office, Superintendent, Board of Education, Principal) wants us to…”

The message being sent to others is that you are detached from the decision, and may not even agree with it.  It’s a not-so-subliminal message being sent to tell others:

  1. I am following orders only out of compliance;
  2. I am covering my bases if asked whether I shared the message;
  3. I am really not invested in the decision or initiative.

While it may feel like it’s still “getting the job done”, it kills leadership.  The people in the room know you don’t buy in to it, and that you might actually be swayed to not follow through with the fidelity the decision or initiative deserves.

Real leadership is about the promotion of ideas through a team environment.  It is definitely appropriate to provide input and feedback through the dialogue phase.  But, once a decision has been made, real leaders conduct a “we” attitude to accomplish the collective goals of the organization.  Anything less sabotages the decision or initiative and creates an “us-versus-them” mentality that breaks a school district community.  The goal is to inspire a school district; not a district of schools working separate from one another.


Over the next few weeks, check yourself and others if this phrase gets used.

Real leaders won’t use this phrase at all.  Instead, they will listen to understand, engage in collegial dialogue, and then frame the final decision or initiative with a “we” mindset.  Doing so will continue to cultivate not only positive relationships and promote the decision or initiative, but it will also increase your leadership potential.


  1. Neil, this is a great reminder for principals who use these phrases to try establish autonomy and for new administrators who use the phrase as a way to let people know they don’t agree with other decisions. Either case, it is a devisive phrase and better left unsaid. Thanks for sharing!

    1. I appreciate the comment, Jennifer. Regardless of the reason and the experience level of the principals, we need to be overt to explain the negative effects of this phrase.

  2. Great leaders have the ability to develop a culture where “we” is the core center of every decision making. Great article.

    1. Great question, Amy. We have to have honest dialogue on how this breaks a team structure. It will take time to repair, but we have to also create a forum to mend relationships and trust to show the positive effects when the district is aligned in efforts.

  3. Neil,

    Thanks for this great reminder. I often listen when I observe leaders present in various formats. It’s surprising how often I hear ‘they,’ referring to central office. If we don’t won’t an us vs. them mentality between admin and teachers we need to be sure admin is not creating it with central office.

  4. I enjoyed reading your article about leadership! I agree leadership is not about autonomy; indeed its about the sharing ideas and working together to foster better, improving ideas.

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