Article Review: The Unheroic Side of Leadership: Notes from the Swamp Jerome T. Murphy

Until recently, one of the more prevalent images of a principal was one of a powerful man in a black suit, untouchable, unapproachable, a person using fear to get subordinates to do his bidding. Even years later, teachers were seen dodging the principal just like children who try to escape going to the principal’s office when punished. Currently, I am working as a new vice principal and I realize that this image of leader as lion, as Murphy (1998) describes, does not suit the type of leader I hope to be. Thankfully, the article "The Unheroic Side of Leadership: Notes from the Swamp" by Jerome T. Murphy (1998) makes observations about educational leaders that confirms that "leaders are quiet lambs as much as roaring lions, and leadership is not found only at the top of an organization" (p. 654). The article presents the unheroic side of leadership that is much more realistic considering the great expectations and frequent challenges of an administrator.

Murphy (1998) offers the reader six dimensionss of leadership. Although the author considers these characteristics to be unheroic, they are extremely important for the success of educational organizations. Many of these activities are overlooked by those of us with stereotypical images of leaders. Murphy (1998) states that good leaders are those who understand:

. . .developing a shared vision (as well as a defining a personal vision), asking questions (as well as having answers), coping with weakness (as well as displaying strength), listening and acknowledging (as well as talking and persuading), depending on others (as well as exercising power), and letting go (as well as taking charge)

(p. 655)

The author continues to explain each area in depth; he gives examples of how great leaders must be able to balance the two images of the lamb and the lion.

As a person who has just been recognized formally as leader (I like to think that I was a leader previous to my appointment of vice principal), I find the article by Murphy (1998) to be very timely. The author’s emphasis on the unheroic side of leadership forces me to consider my approach and the way I handle situations. Every leader has strengths and weaknesses and I believe that three of the six dimensions cited by Murphy (1998) are the most demanding of attention for me: coping with weakness, depending on others, and letting go.

Murphy (1998) gives four strategies for use in overcoming the coping with weakness dimension: matching, compensation, candor and acceptance. Although, Murphy (1998) states that these coping strategies are easier to say than to do, he suggests that the main focus of the leader should be on taking actions based on self-knowledge. Leaders must know how to reflect on their work and be willing to make changes for the better. Just accepting that one has strengths and weakness is the first step.

Once a leader is able to see their personal weaknesses, they have a better chance at being able to depend on others. Leaders must be able to delegate and involve others. By doing this the leader can access other resources on staff and help others become better leaders themselves and achieve results. (Murphy, 1998).

Being able to determine who should be involved is another crucial step in being able to let go. Letting go basically means letting others take the reins, take risks, while backing them up if they fail (Murphy, 1998). This is a hard thing to do for those who enjoy solving problems and like to do things independently.

These three dimensions are the hardest for someone who would rather do it all, do it alone, and hide the fact when it cannot be done. Murphy (1998) forces the reader to reevaluate their ideals of leadership and remove the lion mask. Murphy (1998) ends this article by writing that although it may feel less heroic to be observant of his six dimension, "where heroism is concerned, less can be more. To be a lamb is really to be a lion" (p.659). It is about time that leaders stopped trying to fill stereotypical roles and begin to perform like people who are ready to face the day to day problems with others who are willing to help.

The author mentions the importance of valuing those leaders who are not found at the top of an organization. However, Murphy (1998) does not emphasis the value of horizontal organizational structuring other than to report that leaders should let subordinates take the lead once in a while. Perhaps the utopian image of an organization should be the Knights of the Round Table where every member has a voice in decision making. Advocates of site based management might agree with this image but schools in many regions are far from this.

Murphy (1998) writes to capture the character of a leader in the real world and he does this well. Knowing how to balancing the lion and the lamb is a skill on its own. As the author states, "administrative leadership involves both grand designs and careful attention to the mundane" (Murphy, 1998, p. 659). The author needs to emphasize this skill more in his assessment of a good leader. Careful attention should also be made to the skill of knowing which situation requires the lamb and which the lion.

This article by Murphy (1998) should be read by all leaders whether in a recognized leadership position or not. The images of lion and lamb and the balance necessary to maintain an organization should be posted over all leaders' desks. This article is very significant and contributes much to the body of literature on leadership. Many will be thankful to read an article that provides clear counsel and practical advice.


Murphy, J.T. (1998). The unheroic side of leadership: Notes from the swamp. Phi Delta Kappan. pp. 654 - 659.