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Teachers, Leadership Styles and McGregor’s Theories X and Y Assumptions


Managing people in both the corporate world and the academia industry is difficult and complicated. It requires not only mental and emotional competence  but also toughness. It is an enterprise not meant for the fainthearted and weak-kneed.

Managers need both smarts and grit. They need to be astute and their patience boundless. Perhaps the trickiest part of the job of those in supervisory positions is as  leaders they   have to determine which leadership style is most applicable given the kind of people they are leading and the nature of the business they have.

Leadership theories abound and before managers, supervisors, or administrators  are catapulted into the position as head of the organization they might already have a style which is inherent in them and framed by their education and  personal experiences.

As leaders, they could be any of what Koontz and Weilhrich in “Behavioral Theories” describe as autocratic, democratic, or free-rein leader (laissez-faire). Those in the position of leadership (according to the said authors) have the following options: maintain strong control over their subordinates and lead using their ability to withhold or give rewards and punishment; consult with the people they are leading on proposed actions and decisions and encourage participation from them; or use their power very little, if at all, giving subordinates a high degree of independence in their operations.

As to which of the aforementioned styles is most effective is hard to determine. Those espousing  the “Contingency Theory”  claim that there is no best way to organize  a corporation, to lead a company, or to make decisions. They add that the optimal course of action is contingent upon the internal and external situation. This is the principle that guided me when I was given the opportunity to lead.

In my experience as school administrator (1994-2012), I figured that  there is no one-size-fits-all kind of leadership.  I realized that the way to supervise people is a decision that designated leaders could arrive at only when they assume office. They may have a blueprint on how to lead when they take the reins of leadership in their organization but such is not set in stone. Whether as leaders they become autocratic, democratic, or free-rein depends largely on the kind of people being led.

Douglas McGregor, in his Theory X and Theory Y,  presented two opposing perceptions about employees. Theory X assumes that employees inherently dislike work, avoid responsibilities and seek formal direction and should therefore be coerced, controlled, or threatened with punishment. Conversely, in theory Y, they (employees) are viewed quite the opposite. They need not be controlled and closely supervised because they love work, exercise self-direction and self-control, accept and even seek responsibility, and make innovative decisions.

When leaders have already determined under which set of those perception the people they are supervising belong, they begin to devise what they think is the best way to lead them.

Experts in human behavior are saying though that people working in organizations are not necessarily either one type or the other. They said that between the two extremes, there could be a combination of behaviors. Thus, leaders need to be careful not to implement policies and operate in response only to either (or both) of those two assumptions about employees. They need to be flexible.

The best leaders are those who could devise a way to have a complete inventory of the different personalities of people in the organization they are running and calibrate their approaches to leadership to the categories of personalities that would emerge from the inventory. That of course is easier said than done especially if they are overseeing a big group, company or association.

What about teachers? Generally speaking, where should teachers be classified – under theory X or theory Y?

It is hard to imagine teachers disliking their work and avoiding responsibilities. To be in-charge of the teaching-learning process is not a walk in the park. It demands  the highest form of professional competence which means doing a lot of work and accepting a lot of responsibilities as well. The list of the things that teachers are expected to perform is long – prepare lessons;  construct exams, mark tests, quizzes and assignments; prepare reports; attend seminars and trainings; and keep abreast with the current innovations including using technology in instruction. The teachers’ primary function, of course, is instruction. If they are in universities, they are also expected to do research and get involved in community extension programs.

That’s a lot of things to do for teachers and with their plates that full  the teachers cannot possibly be theory X type. When they embraced the profession, they know the kind of work they are doing. They know that  they don’t stop working after class hours.  Teachers always  walk an extra mile or two.

The prevailing perception about teachers is that they are consummate professionals – the  embodiment of the theory Y assumptions.

Teachers are responsible and independent.  They don’t need to be micromanaged because they are happy to work on their own initiative and their strong sense of professionalism and self-motivation always lead to the successful completion of their tasks and responsibilities and strict adherence to policies and guidelines. They also need not be told as to what to do because they have strong sense of self-direction and self-control.

Are these assumptions about teachers true?

I have been in the academia for almost 31 years as a teacher. I worked with different kinds of teachers across demographics – age, gender, race, education, religion, and philosophical persuasion – as a colleague and as administrator (for 18 of those 31 years). Based on my experiences (most particularly here in South Korea where I have been teaching since 2013 and was briefly a head professor for 3 semesters), I can say that that prevailing perception about teachers is not true.

Some teachers are theory X type, some theory Y, and some are in-between.

The worst assumption that school owners and administrators could make is “all teachers conduct themselves within the bounds of professionalism.” They ought  to check carefully the background of the teachers they hire. They need to strictly monitor the performance of the teachers and ensure they are following school policies and guidelines.  This should not be construed as lack of trust but rather enforcing excellence and ensuring that the students get what they deserve, what they pay for.

The ones leading schools ought to make sure that their teachers are not engaged in what I call “mercenary teaching” – interested only in the money and disregards professional ethics.

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