A case study on Leadership- True leaders are made of sterner stuff and they carry on and create history

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Leadership- A Case Study


When we talk about leaders the pictures of Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela first come to mind. On deeper introspection one my even consider Adolf Hitler as a leader. Then there are the conquerors like Alexander, Julius Caesar, and Genghis Khan, who were invariably leaders. Then there are political leaders who led their countries in times of war like Churchill and Roosevelt. Business leaders and industry captains like Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Ratan Tata are also leaders. Film stars and celebrities with their huge fan base who affect and motivate millions can be considered as leaders.  The picture of leaders is incomplete without thinking of huge swaying crowds, armies or teams. 


Essentials of an authentic leader

When discussing leadership qualities we tend to think of leaders being gregarious, efficient communicators, larger than life, leading from the front etc. The greats mentioned above did display these qualities in abundance, and even a team leader in a firm, a store manager, a police captain has these qualities that put him above others. 

Northouse, (2018), believes that there are some professions which do not need the above mentioned qualities and do not have a following of the masses; but they are intensely personal: like a scientist, who alone sees an idea or a theory and sets about to prove it or an author who alone envisions a fantasy world and sets about creating it with mere words. There are no swaying crowds for these professions waiting to be motivated and spring into action. These professions have a lot of uncertainty and self-doubt. They are plagued with ‘what if I am wrong?’ syndrome. These people have to take an inward journey of self-discovery before realizing their true worth.   

Self-awareness in Sally Heglesen’s story

The case study is about Sally Helgesen a small town girl who wanted to an author but was unsure if it was her true calling. She started out as a writer in an advertising firm, and then went on to be an assistant columnist in ‘Village Voice’. According to Sousa & Rocha, (2018),she also freelanced for Vogue, Fortune and other magazine in her formative years. Initially her ambition was to be a professor and was preparing for PhD in comparative religion, but was pulled by her love for writing in the other direction. Finally she gave in to her desire to write and wrote her first novel ‘Wildcatter’ in 1981 which was a failure. 

She then took a job as a speech writer for a CEO of a Fortune 500 company. According to Carter et al. (2016),while working here she noticed that the suggestions and the insights offered by working women were being ignored by their male counterparts. Women, she believed were uniquely endowed with perspectives that could benefit organisations. Unfortunately, most studies at that time emphasized on how women needed change and adapt to fit into the male dominated business world. Sally said the exact opposite that it’s the men who needed to change and the women should be encouraged to stick to their original selves. Her book ‘The Female Advantage: Women’s Way of Leadership’ published in 1990 which was a runaway success. It remained so for the next 20 years. The success of the book gave Sally the opportunities of public speaking and consulting, which took her round the world and numerous clients. 

Though successful as an author Sally felt that she was not qualified to be a social scientist. She doubted her ability to a good consultant. She felt she was a writer and just that, whereas others saw her as an expert. She felt that she was a fraud at heart and was reluctant to shoulder the leadership that was entrusted upon her. 

She persevered and though haltingly at first came to trust herself; she weighed in on her strengths and finally took on the mantel of leadership.   

Though leadership is seen as an overt process, it is really an intense inward journey. It is fraught with failure and rejection. Abraham Lincoln lost 8 elections, failed in business and suffered nervous breakdown. Mandela was jailed for 27 years. Throughout history independence was gained by war, Gandhi espoused non-violence. In the early years of their struggle almost all leaders are lonely. Only they can see a path that is invisible to those around them. As opined by Renzulli & D’Souza, (2014), they only dare to follow their heart’s desire where their own parents, peers, colleagues challenge them and thwart them. They are berated, put down and discouraged at every turn. But what sets these people apart is that is their self-awareness, a feeling of self-righteousness and self-confidence. As mentioned by Fernandez et al. (2015), leaders see things differently and they pursue their course of action in face of authority, ridicule or public disgrace. 

Authenticity of Sally Heglesen’s leadership

Sally Helgesen was forever in doubt about her true calling. Her parents were educators and she felt she should also be in the same profession. Initially she started writing accidently, but soon realized that she enjoyed doing so. Though her first book failed she did not give up the thought of being an author she improvised and got a fresh perspective. 

Like true leaders her book ‘The Female Advantage: Women’s Way of Leadership’ was against conventional wisdom of that time. She had an original and path breaking thought that she put forward bravely. In the early 1980 and 90’s there were very few women in leadership positions in America. As stated by  Owen, (2017),women had accepted that they need to change and accept the ways of men to be successful in corporate life. Sally challenged this view and urged women to be as they were, their style of thinking was better than the way men thought about running businesses. This was ground-breaking and got her success. It took courage to do so. 

The core leadership of Sally Heglesen

Even though, Sally still doubted if she was a true leader or just an outsider. It must be remembered that people are applauded in public for what they practice in private. Though Sally was unsure of her leadership status, if one were to examine her own life it is quite obvious she was an authentic leader. Her parents were teachers and she wanted to become one. Yet she followed her instincts and became an author. She faced failure without giving up on the idea of being a writer. She put forward her original ideas boldly in her book. That shows her self-confidence. Finally, when she got a chance to be a consultant and a public speaker she accepted the challenge. Accepting change is another hall-mark of leadership. It can be argued though Sally may have had doubts; she has evolved into a leader. 

Everybody wants to be a leader or a star. But very few have the capability to taken on a leadership position. Leadership is not sitting in a chair and bossing people around. That is what managers do. Kotagal, & Pellegrini, (2018) say that leadership is about ownership, setting an example; it involves sacrifice and facing failure. When these things are demanded people tend to back out. That is why there are so many kingmakers. People mostly prefer to be faceless non-entities, they prefer to be content with whatever they have and go along with the tide. They may have the capability, but they do not dare, they do not have the courage or the gumption to see things through. Leaders have to accept this ‘mantle of leadership’ because it announces to the world about who is in charge. It signifies their desire to come out of obscurity into the glare of public scrutiny. It is the leader who is identified by either failure or success.

Evidence of Sally’s “mantle of leadership”

In the case of Sally Helgesen she had written a book called ‘The Female Advantage: Women’s Way of Leadership’. The title of the book itself was about women’s leadership. It showed the way of empowering women to be leaders in business world. The book was so successful that it became a bestseller and remained so for the next 20 years. The book challenged conventional wisdom and paved way for an evolutional change. It is the bedrock on which future women leaders of America got their chance. Because the book was widely accepted; she got opportunity of consultation and speaking assignments. . Her idea needed a larger audience and the lectures and consultations were the need of the hour. By taking consultation assignment she could talk to the clients on a one to one basis and give tailor made solutions. If she had doubted her credibility as a speaker or a consultant people would have perceived her as a windbag, or someone who cannot practice what she preaches. It was thus vital for her to accept the mantel of leadership that was offered to her. By accepting these assignments her idea could be expounded to a larger audience and it remained relevant for the next 20 years.


The mantle of leadership is a heavy burden to carry; every leader is faced with a dilemma of whether to go ahead or give up. It seems so easy to give up and let go and most people do just that. It is not in them to go that extra mile. True leaders are made of sterner stuff and they carry on and create history.

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