The Unlikely Leader

Jaime Escalante, Math Teacher at Garfield High, Los Angeles

 It is a curious thing, Harry, but perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it. Those who, like you, have leadership thrust upon them, and take up the mantle because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well.

Albus Dumbledore speaking to Harry Potter in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Rowling, J.K. (2007) Arthur A. Levine Books, p.718.

In this series we’ll be exploring the journey of the unlikely leader – the person who finds themselves thrust into leadership without actively seeking it out. Usually they feel inadequate in their leadership abilities and have a feeling of “how did I get here?” If this describes you don’t panic, you’re in good company. Not many fit the mold that we cast of the leader.

What image comes to mind when you think as the perfect leader? Is it something along these lines: 

  • Male
  • Tall
  • Ruggedly handsome
  • Inspirational speaker
  • Charismatic


We’ll explode the myth of the “natural” leader and discover that many great leaders did not possess these attributes. In fact, most came to their positions out of a passion for a cause, or necessity, or through a process that they did not control. If you feel this describes you, take heart, leadership scholars uniformly state that leadership skills can be learned, and do not need to be natural gifts. Here are some examples of people who became leaders through these means.

 Examples of people who became leaders because they were passionate about their cause include:

  • Florence Nightingale – The founder of modern nursing practices and education.
  • William Wilberforce – Led the cause for the peaceful abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire.
  • Jaime Escalante – Born in Bolivia. He became a math teacher at Garfield High School in a barrio in East Los Angeles. When he arrived in 1974 there were only 12 students in Algebra, the highest math course taught. By 1990 there were over 400 students in enriched math, many successfully passing the AP Calculus test.
  • Jane Addams – Founder of Hull House in Chicago. She was passionate about giving inner city families the means to rise above poverty.

 Examples of leaders who had their positions thrust upon them include:

  • Moses – “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”  “Oh Lord, I have never been eloquent…I am slow of speech and tongue…please send someone else to do it.”
  • Vaclav Havel – Playwright and poet – The voice of the 1968 Czech uprising against the Soviet Union. He was elected President of Czechoslovakia after the fall of the Soviet Union without running as a candidate.

 Finally, there are those leaders who were hardly perfect and overcame disabilities that we believe would normally preclude people from leadership roles:

  • Abraham Lincoln suffered from melancholy (depression).
  • Winston Churchill was bipolar.
  • William Wilberforce suffered from ulcerative colitis that in those days was treated with opium, which had other impacts to his life and slowly poisoned him.

    Hale Telescope at Mount Palomar

  • George Hale led a fourteen year project that created the Mount Palomartelescope,twice the size of any other telescope in the world at that time. Hale suffered from schizophrenia, and said a “little man” would appear and berate him.

 All of these leaders persevered through these disabling illnesses to successfully lead their constituents. You may feel that you’re imperfect and not adequate to lead. You may feel you feel may you’ve been thrown into your position and are unprepared to lead. You may be passionate about your profession, but you don’t believe you’re a leader. Welcome, you’re in the good company of a long line of unlikely leaders going back to ancient days. Let’s explore how to overcome these feelings by learning what the experts have to tell us on becoming a leader.

Over the course of this series I’ll share teachings from several leadership authors:

  • Daniel Goleman, et. al. – Primal Leadership
  • Warren Bennis – On Becoming a Leader & Managing People is like Herding Cats
  • James M. Kouzes & Barry Z. Posner – The Leadership Challenge
  • Robert Greenleaf – Servant Leadership
  • Daniel H. Pink – Drive
  • Noel M. Tichy & Marry Anne Devana – The Transformational Leader
  • Rob Lebow & William E. Simon – Lasting Change
  • Jim Collins – Good to Great
  • Michael Z. Hackman & Craig E. Johnson – Leadership: A Communication Perspective
  • Oz Guinness – When No One Sees – The Importance of Character in an Age of Image

I can’t wait to get started!

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4 Responses to The Unlikely Leader

  1. Jon Carlson says:

    What a timely post for an election year! So many people, clamoring for power… What is their intent? What is their motivation? I think we all have to ask ourselves those questions in any situation, but we should truly demand answers like that from those driving for public office. What makes you think you are so capable to rule over the rest of us? Better have a good answer!

  2. Kristina Selting says:

    lol!:) I was thinking of the election year thing too! It’s interesting too, looking back in history in the differences between leaders who have held office and those who have had leadership thrust upon them. One of the favorite presidents to read about was Franklin D Roosevelt who once said,”The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today…Let us move forward with strong and active faith.” Words like that make me believe I’m not alone when feeling apprehension about assuming a leadership position. But, by leaning on faith, and continuing to push forward, we too can have success.

  3. Angel Lopez says:

    Leadership and power has been around since the beginning of civilization. The most charismatic citizens would be thrust into the position by the public, but who really has the power in leadership? Is it the people or the King? I agree with Mr. Wilson, that many people are put in the position of leadership without an indication of what is taking place. This is held true by the many Kings and Queens of Europe throughout the Renaissance. But I believe it is not the King who dictates every decision in parliament that rules with little effort, it is the king that is patient and listens to his advisers and contemporaries. Leadership is best held in the hearts of the humble and forthcoming. Sympathizing with the people is a key characteristic is leadership. So I say, the people are the leaders of a King and the King is the symbol of the people. In this election year, the people will decide the next President to represent our country, but it is not the President who decides which nation to govern.

  4. Christine Drentlaw says:

    I am looking forward to this series. I am one who does not feel comfortable in a leadership role, but sometimes take it on because no one else will. Overcoming your fears is one of the hardest thing a person can do. This series should give some great instruction on how to do this successfully. Thank you for writing on this subject.

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