Demystifying Myths About Leadership: An NNEST Perspective

The TESOL President’s Blog

Who can become a leader for a professional organization? As nonnative-English-speaking (NNES) educators, especially new teachers, many tend to say, “I’m just a graduate student,” or  “I’m just a new teacher in the field. How can I take a leadership role with established professionals?”

Let me share a personal story of how I got started. When I was a young graduate student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE)/University of Toronto in Canada about 29 years ago, my professors encouraged us to attend professional conferences. I remember my first: It was TESOL Ontario’s annual conference. I was so excited hopping from one session to another, eagerly taking notes and gathering handouts. Then I ran into one of my professors, Dr. Canale.  During our conversation, he encouraged me. “Yilin, have you thought of presenting at this conference?” he said. “You have unique experiences and perspectives.  You should think of using one of your papers to present.”  I had never thought of presenting at a professional conference, not to mention  becoming a leader for a professional organization.

The following year, I submitted a proposal and it was accepted! My presentation was well received by my audience, and afterward I continued to look for more opportunities to make presentations, informing and encouraging others.  Along the way I met and got to know other professionals and many scholars.  Each encounter provided me with more valuable experience and led me to take on different leadership roles, including serving as president for TESOL International Association and Washington Association for the Education of Speakers of Other Languages (WAESOL). That first presentation at that TESOL Ontario conference helped me build confidence, develop skills, and begin to network for my later involvement in various leadership roles.  Everyone has that first time experience, and we sometimes need someone to give us a push, as Professor Canale did for me.

In addition to a lack of confidence, NNESTs face other challenges, such as unfamiliarity with the system’s culture and structure, organizational “prejudice,” and lack of support and opportunities. But perhaps the biggest obstacles are the myths about leadership and who can be a leader.

Myth 1. Leadership is not for everyone. Leaders are born.

Many people believe leadership is not for everyone. Leaders are born, not bred. That is simply not true. Leadership skills can be learned and cultivated through leadership development opportunities, dedication and willingness to learn, and, most important, through constant practice. We need to learn to lead by doing!

Myth 2. Leadership is a position, so you need a title to be a leader.

This is one of the most common myths about leadership. As Kouzes & Posner (2012) state, “Leadership is not a place, it’s not a gene, it’s not a secret code. . . . Leadership is an observable set of skills and abilities.” A title does not in itself qualify you as a leader. Leadership is based on a vision and supported with knowledge, confidence, optimism, drive, openness, humanity, integrity, caring, and more. Good leadership is framed with inspiration and should always bring out the best in people, to help them find the courage to overcome challenges and achieve a common goal.

Myth 3.  Leaders are always in the spotlight—they lead from the front.

Many good leaders do an excellent job leading from the periphery. It is true that once you take on a leadership role, you need to be a spokesperson for the organization you serve. However,  good leaders don’t always lead from the front; they are good team players and good listeners. They are creative and innovation, and they collaborate with others and bring out the best in them. These characteristics allow them to identify trends, issues, and  solutions from the grass-roots level.

NNESTs and persons of color, however, are often seen as coming from the periphery (Curtis, 2009).  Today, it is well recognized that NNESTs from the periphery (the outer and expanding circles) outnumber the native English speakers from the center (United States, Canada, United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Australia). Despite the fact that NNESTs outnumber native speakers, however, NNESTs are not as involved in policy and decision making as native speakers. It is important for everyone, regardless of native language, to learn how to lead from the periphery and how to lead from behind (Anderson, 2009).  Being in the peripheral position gives you a different perspective and the opportunity to bring different voices, especially voices that are historically excluded, to the decision-making process.

Myth 4: It’s not possible for an NNEST to become a leader.

In 1998, when TESOL esablished the Nonnative English Speakers in TESOL (NNEST) Caucus, perhaps very few people could have imagined the remarkable achievements of NNES professionals who have since taken various leadership positions. The 2006 inauguration of Jun Liu as the president of TESOL—the first nonnative speaker and person of color elected to that position—epitomized this attainment. This achievement was  followed by the 2008 election of Suresh Canagarajah as the second vice-president of the American Association of Applied Linguistics. He was also the first NNEST and person of color to serve as TESOL Quarterly editor.

Many other NNES professionals and NNES or NES people of color are increasingly filling academic and leadership positions in higher education as well as professional organizations in the field of second language education and applied linguistics (Kubota & Sun, 2012). With all the achievements and successes that NNESTs have made over the last 15 years, another myth has surfaced.

Myth 5: Leadership positions are now widely available to NNESTs, and they no longer face challenges to their leadership abilities.

More and more NNESTs are working in the ELT profession and playing important roles in English language education, TESOL leadership, the research field, and teacher training. Their significant contributions coming to the forefront and they are having a clear impact on the association, the profession, and language learners.

Does that mean that NNES and professionals of color can sail over various obstacles to advance their career and professional goals? No, growing diversity and increasing awareness of NNESTs in higher education and the ELT field does not necessarily mean that racial and linguistic discrimination have disappeared, nor does it mean that all NNESTs can easily obtain leadership positions or leadership development opportunities. NNESTs still face many challenges; they need to be aware of the challenges and develop strategies to overcome them.

Suggested Strategies

Here are some of the strategies that have worked for me and many other professionals who have taken on leadership roles in various professional organizations and institutions.

  • Act Now!  Don’t play “wait and see.” Start with your local affiliate association. Submit a proposal for a presentation or volunteer at a TESOL conference so that you can build confidence, find your network, and get to know the organization.
  • Read publications on leadership and search leadership websites. I enjoyed reading Leadership Is Not about Position: Leading From Behind (Anderson, 2007);  Leadership in English Language Education (Christison & Murray, 2009); and The Leadership Challenge (Kounzes & Posner, 2012). Here are a few leadership websites that I found helpful:
  • Participate in leadership training sessions. TESOL and other ELT professional organizations offer leadership development workshops and online training. TESOL’s Leadership Development Certificate Program (LDCP) is one of the best. The LDCP will give you insights and many helpful tools on how to be a leader with a professional association. Highly recommended.
  • Learn the organizational structure and governing rules: Attend business meetings of the association. Every organization has a different culture with different rules for getting on the agenda, getting an article published, raising issues and concerns, getting a resolution through, and developing policies. In the process of learning and doing, you create opportunities to meet people and leaders as well as opportunities to collaborate with others. Be a good observer and don’t be afraid to ask questions and challenge the system constructively.
  • Have a mentor. It’s very important to have a mentor and a “buddy,” someone you respect and trust as a leader or a colleague. Look for mentors who are insightful and caring, and who will give you honest perspectives and constructive criticisms.
  • Lead from behind, within a group, and from the edge. Start with a small step: Find an opportunity to lead beyond the classroom level and create success, not only for yourself but for all of us.  Develop your network and find your community. Always be persistent and have a positive attitude.
  • Conduct a personal SWOT  analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats). Realize that strengths and weaknesses are internal; opportunities and threats are external. List three strengths you have and develop them. Simultaneously list three weaknesses and note details. Now identify three opportunities in the upcoming two or three years and seize them.  List the three major threats you believe you will face in next two or three years and make a plan to conquer those threats and turn them into strengths. By doing an honest self-assessment, you can learn a lot about yourself and your potential contributions to the organization you belong to or plan to join.
  • Timing is important.  Seize the opportunity without hesitation when the time comes. Seize the opportunity, as we know personal success without leadership ability brings only limited effectiveness. Seize the opportunity to create more opportunities for you and others and use these opportunities to enhance your development as an individual and as a professional through strengthened communication and organizational skills.

Leadership, as Jun Liu once said, is about “ordinary people doing extraordinary things that matter to them.” And with this, remember: No one is a born leader.  We all learn to lead by leading, so don’t wait.  The time to act is now!

I’d love to hear your thoughts on ways to demystify myths about leadership; share with the community in the comments section. Thank you.


Anderson, N. J. (2007). Leadership is not about position: Leading from behind. Retrieved from

Curtis, A. (2009). Leading from the periphery. In M. Christison & D. Murrary (Eds.), Leadership in English language education: Theoretical foundations and practical skills for changing times (pp. 98-109). New York, NY: Routledge.

Kouzes, J., & Posner, B. (2012). The leadership challenge: How to make extraordinary things happen in organizations (5th ed.). John Wiley & Sons.

Kubota, R., & Sun, Y. (2012). Demystifying career paths after graduate school: A guide for second language professionals in higher education. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

About Yilin Sun

Yilin Sun
Yilin Sun has served as president of TESOL International Association, as chair of the TESOL Affiliate Leadership Council, and president of Washington Association for the Education of Speakers of Other Languages (WAESOL). In 2011-2012, Dr. Sun was a Fulbright Senior Scholar in Taiwan at the National Taiwan Normal University. Dr. Sun received her doctorate in applied linguistics/curriculum and instruction from the University of Toronto, Canada. She has more than 28 years of experience in the field of TESOL as a teacher educator, a researcher, a classroom teacher, and a program leader with various institutions of higher education in China, Canada, and the United States. She is the author and co-author of books, book chapters, and research papers in refereed professional journals. Her research interests include curriculum development, program assessment and evaluation, L2 reading, vocabulary learning, classroom-based action research, teacher education, adult education, teaching English to young learners, World Englishes, ESP and nonnative English speaking teachers (NNEST) in the ELT field.
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6 Responses to Demystifying Myths About Leadership: An NNEST Perspective

  1. Dear Ms. Sun,
    I am presently a Peace Corps volunteer in Mongolia working at a start up university, American University of Mongolia. I am on Linkedin so you can verify my credentials and I have given the web site for the university.
    We are frantically attempting to put together a BRIDGE program at our site and have secured a grant for texts. Our problem is attempting to wade through the enormous amount of options of texts for our future program. We were hoping that you might be able to recommend what others in such programs across the world have found effective in such environments. Our future plan is to provide a Liberal Arts Degree that mirrors American standards in higher education. Our students would be screened to test at an intermediate English language level.

    Our monies for texts are time sensitive and we would be eternally grateful for any guidance you might be able to provide.

    Donna Thompson

    • Yilin Sun Yilin Sun says:

      Dear Donna,

      I hope you have received my suggestions to your inquiry via e-mail. Hope they are helpful. Very best wishes for your new bridge program. That’s very exciting!

      Warm regards,

  2. Kyungsook Yeum says:

    Dear Yulin,

    Thank you for posting and demystifying the common assumptions related to leadership issues, while at the same time representing NNESTs’s perspectives in TESOL. The past 15 years of TESOL have been monumental in describing the perspectives and identities of NNESTs.

    Hopefully, we are all ready to go beyond, to build an environment that is more conducive to intercultural leadership. The most successful leadership will come from the ability to negotiate differences based on flexibility and patience. May TESOL become a true organization to encompass diversity and go beyond national boundaries and borders.

    I wish the best for you and for the TESOL organization!


    • Yilin Sun Yilin Sun says:

      Thank you Kyungsook for your encouraging message and your kind wishes. I admire your vision and your motivation to move forward. Please continue your involvement with TESOL and NNEST community. TESOL is committed to building an environment that is conducive to intercultural leadership and encompassing diversity and going beyond boundaries and borders, so I’m glad we are moving in the direction you feel is compatible with where you think we should be going.

      Warm regards,

  3. Yilin Sun Yilin says:

    Thank you Kevin. I also strongly believe and fully agree with you that leaders need to ‘rise above” and lead the entire organization, not just one group or a few groups and we need more TESOLer’s to step into leadership positions. That’s the reason I posted this blog. I believe the five myths I shared in my blog are the most common ones that hinder our members from stepping into leadership roles. It was also my personal experience, as well. TESOL, as an international organization, needs leaders who can listen to and bring diverse voices to the decision-making process and lead across boundaries.
    Warm regards

  4. Kevin Knight Kevin Knight says:

    Thanks, Yilin, for posting this!

    I would like to encourage everyone to check out the CCL white papers on “boundary spanning leadership.”

    It seems to me that “group” leaders need to learn to “rise above” and “look outside of” their groups in order to see how their groups fit into the bigger organizational picture. This is not easy to do because we become so group-oriented.

    The white papers on boundary spanning leadership address such issues.


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