little l vs. Big L Leaders

Leadership is not about being perfect. It’s not about always making the right decision. It’s not about being better than everyone or more experienced. It doesn’t have anything to do with how popular you are. And it’s definitely not about the title you have.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been able to summarize my leadership mindframe between a little l leader and a Big L Leader. Now this is not a new metaphor for leadership, but my understanding and interpretation of it has. Lately for me, a Big L Leader practices Big L Leadership and is willing to be responsible and accountable for a group, an organization, a project, etc regardless internal challenges.


Over the past few weeks I’ve been mulling over the leaders in my life and their leadership styles. As the majority of my blog readers can attest to, being in Student Affairs and a fraternity, there is no shortage of leaders. But how many are Big L Leaders?

Each leader in my life has a plethora of leadership traits that we find in the multitude of leadership styles and theories.

Some are detail-oriented. Some are great time managers. Some are great at uniting a group of people together for a task.

Some are great at transformational leadership as defined by authors of Transformational Leadership, Bass and Riggio:

“Transformational leaders…are those who stimulate and inspire followers to both achieve extraordinary outcomes and, in the process, develop their own leadership capacity. Transformational leaders help followers grow and develop into leaders by responding to individual followers’ needs by empowering them and by aligning the objectives and goals of the individual followers, the leader, the group, and the larger organization.”

Other leaders excel at transactional leadership which emphasises reward and punishment practices. While others excel at the Hersey-Blanchard Situational Model which proffers the idea the type of leadership style should be respectively match with the maturity/ experience of the subordinate in one of four relationships: 1) Telling (High Task-Low Relationship); 2) Selling (High Task-High Relationship); 3) Participating (Low Task-High Relationship); 4) Delegating (Low Task-Low Relationship).

And the use of all of these are great and make for wonderful leaders. But for all the great practices, styles, traits and theories we have and use, to be a Big L Leader you need to come full circle, and own the responsibilities and be accountable for the good, the bad and the ugly of your group, project etc. And I’ll be honest there are not many, but thank goodness I have some great Big L Leaders in my life now.

If at the end of the day you pass the buck, for a mistake, onto a subordinate, an external entity or even a superior, I would not consider you a Big L Leader. If you do not acknowledge individual/team efforts, I wouldn’t consider you a Big L Leader. Those practices only get you to little l style leader. You’ve only done the task and not done the leadership. Yes, the team may have grown and developed and perhaps you succeeded at the task. But if you do not take responsibility and hold yourself accountable for the actions and results, good, bad or ugly, of yourself , the project, the department, then I can’t consider you a Big L Leader.

Always hold your team and office responsible and accountable for their own actions within the organization. But always hold yourself responsible and accountable for the group as a whole. It’s never fun taking responsibility for the errors of a team/team member, or the poor decisions of a fellow staff member, but to me that is the last step of being a Big L Leader and practicing Big L Leadership.

Courtesy of Brian D. Proffer
Courtesy of Brian D. Proffer

I am not perfect at this. It’s human nature to practice “Survival of the Fittest”. But to be a Big L Leader I’m learning that I need to transcend beyond Survival of the Fittest and understand that while it’s an honor to be a leader it requires not only the traits and skills of one, but the practice of full circle responsibility and accountability.

Food for thought 🙂

Until next time

Peace, Love and Pandas!


Bass, Bernard M. and Ronald E. Riggio. (2006). Transformational leadership (2nd ed.). New York, New York: Psychology Press. (2015, July 14). Hersey-Blanchard Situational Model. Retrieved from

Published by Brian

I am currently the Assistant Director of Student Life for Registered Student Organizations and Late-Night Programming at Michigan State University. After earning my B.A. from the University of Michigan-Flint, I entered the Student Affairs profession. After a few years in the field, I returned to school and earned my M.A. in Educational Leadership-Higher Education Student Affairs from Eastern Michigan University. In my spare time I blog about my thoughts and musings on current issues in higher education, student affairs, digital worlds, identity development and general life inspirations and observations. I also volunteer a lot for my fraternity and multiple regional and national professional associations.

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