The metaphor, a way of combining words and a visual image to illustrate a concept, has been a part of human discourse since before the days of Aristotle.
The metaphor of the toolbox or toolkit is widely used in many fields of study and professions to illustrate the concept that there is a set of competencies and skills, or tools, in a particular profession or field that a successful practitioner can rely upon to do his or her job. When they are not needed, these core “tools” reside in the box waiting to be called upon, and a skilled person knows when to use each component of this toolbox when it is most appropriate.
Much has been written about a “tool box” for nonprofit leaders. Bear and Fitzgibbon (2005) refer to the toolbox as a “prescription for leadership success in not-for-profit organizations.” (pg. 89) Let’s unpack this statement that fairly sums up the prominent belief that if a nonprofit executive simply collect the right tools in their toolbox, then they have what they need to become a successful leader. But this is analogous to a neophyte magician having all the accoutrements of the trade in his magician’s box, but not knowing how to finesse the tricks so that he can perform magic that awes.
Marc Anderson (2007) describes the toolbox concept as:
The metaphor of the conceptual toolbox highlights how each management theory is merely a tool to help understand and explain a particular (and limited) range of experience. Although some tools are more applicable than others for a broader set of tasks (e.g., a hammer, expectancy theory, transformational-leadership theory), more exotic tools are nevertheless critical for accomplishing specific tasks (e.g., a lathe, motivation-hygiene theory, servant-leadership theory). Someone who has never faced these rarer tasks may see the tool as useless, and yet this person may face the very situation requiring that tool in the near future.
Perhaps it is time to employ a slightly different metaphor, the leadership tool belt. While this may seem merely a semantic difference, it is one worth exploring. The toolbox metaphor, while putting forth the concept that there are specific and numerous leadership tools that one must master and know when to employ, also suggests that these are separate from the leader. The leader must go to this toolbox and chose the right tool for a specific interaction or situation. This conjures up the image of that leader opening the toolbox and perusing the collection of tools within to determine the best one. Once the box is opened, the leader is faced with numerous choices laid out before her. Human nature dictates that when faced with choices we must weigh the possibilities and then make the decision that is deemed to be the best choice. These so-called tools – the skills, knowledge and personal traits required for effective leadership – must be readily available at the instant that they are required. In other words, they must be part of the leader herself. If they are seen as separate, then there is no need to incorporate these into who that leader is as a person, they are merely tools relied upon when needed and not utilized nor thought about when not needed.
These tools can be separated into four categories: skills; knowledge; practice ability or the application of skills and knowledge; and, the personal. Each individual must develop a proficiency in each of these areas to become an effective leader.
Divided into these four areas, we can construct a tool belt that is complete and contains useful tools that address each of these categories. Effective leaders must have the skills to address the situation, the practice ability to know what will or will not work, the knowledge of theories and practice to determine an approach and eventual solution and, finally, all leaders must possess interpersonal skills and an understanding of themselves if they are to effectively lead people.
As leadership skills, knowledge and experience develop, the leader is best able to choose which tools work best in which situations and to also determine their location in the leadership tool belt. This is not a linear journey. There is no direct route from point A to point B. The path to becoming a leader takes many twists and turns, successes and failures and learning to live with ambiguity as you chart your own course through a journey that resembles more a labyrinth than a clear path to your goal.
As Philip Toshio Sudo describes the learning process: “ To progress, think like a rock climber. At times it may be necessary to move laterally before moving upwards. At other times it may be necessary to rest and regroup, or even move down a step, before continuing. Remember a pattern of two steps up, one step back is still progress. Do not think of these moves as anything other than part of your overall path.”
The learning process in pursuit of excellence, as described by Toshio Sudo, is a lifelong endeavor, one that progresses forward, takes steps back and moves laterally. There is not a time in one’s pursuit of leadership excellence that the journey reaches a final marker. No matter how proficient one is at leadership, whether or not one has achieved what Collins refers to as Level Five Leadership, there is always room for improvement, room for growth and room for learning from new experiences and challenges. Leadership is a journey, where the end is in sight, it is always sought after. But when it appears that the goal of excellence is achieved, the finish line is still further ahead. The most effective leaders are ones who remain open to learning from new experiences and accumulating new knowledge in their continuous pursuit of leadership excellence.
Social learning theory, developed by Albert Bandura, provides an explanation of how humans learn new behaviors and ways of being, which is attained through a continuous interaction of a variety of influences on and with the individual, including cognitive, behavioral and environmental factors. Applying this to leadership development, we learn by doing, interacting and observing. In combination with “Praxis,” the creation of change through action, reflection and action, as defined by Paolo Freire, these two approaches provide a road map for continuous learning, development and improvement of one’s leadership skills and abilities. In the practice or praxis, the leader learns by doing. She takes an action and then takes the time to reflect upon that action, whether or not the outcome is the one that was sought. All too often we only reflect upon our failures in an attempt to not repeat them. But taking the time to reflect upon all action, even those that are successful, provides us with a better understanding of the action taken, the result that was sought and how to take this or a similar action in the future. The process of reflection provides insight and understanding that will help improve leadership skills.
Effective leadership is not only about having the proper tools in your tool belt. You could have all the necessary tools, all brand new and in excellent shape at the ready in your carpenter’s tool belt. It could include the finest bit brace, chisels, hand saws, mallet, punch and hammer to name a few. However, merely having the right tools at the ready would not make you a fine carpenter. Your work would not compare to someone who has studied and developed the skills and the experience and knowledge about how to use each of these to the fullest potential.
Author Jen Shirkani summarizes this when she writes:
Research shows that technical expertise is not a core indicator of success in the highest ranks of an organization. At the top of the hierarchy, technical expertise becomes negligible while leadership skills become all-important—especially those rooted in Emotional Intelligence. Self-awareness, self-control, and empathy: research has shown us that these skills matter more to success than the qualities we have long believed were the definitive predictors of success—personal qualities like determination or toughness, or IQ.
Leadership education should not be solely about the technical expertise required of leaders. Rather it is a journey of understanding and development about becoming a leader, which is so much more than merely learning the skills necessary to be a leader. There are times when we will pause, move sideways and possibly even take steps backward. This is all part of the leadership journey.
Irwin Nesoff is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Leadership and Policy. Prior to joining the faculty at Wheelock, he was a member of the social work faculty at Kean University in Union, New Jersey for 13 years. He received his Masters of Social Work degree from the Hunter College School of Social Work and his Doctorate in Social Welfare from the City University of New York Graduate Center. He has also taught in the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Pubic Service of NYU, and earned a certificate in nonprofit management from Columbia University. At Wheelock, he has developed the curriculum for the Masters Degree in Nonprofit Leadership, and is responsible for overseeing the Student Policy Fellows program and the winter Policy Talks.