Effective Leadership in Schools

I’ve been thinking lately about leadership theories, and specifically about leadership in schools. There are few topics, about which so much has been written, as leadership. Annual best-seller lists are filled with biographies of leaders, and “how-tos” that promise to show us how to be just like them. Clichés abound, like “leaders think outside the box,” or leaders know “there’s no ‘I’ in ‘team,’” and “stick to their guns” because it’s a“marathon, not a sprint.” When I was tapped early in my career to be a leader, I remember feeling the pressure to “act like a leader,” thinking I needed to adopt a persona or do what famous leaders did. It didn’t work!

Over time, I have learned that at the root of leadership, in education or any other field, is not a sum of traits and behaviors, but something more simple and profound: leaders have strong personal character and unwavering ethical virtue. When I think of the most effective educational leaders I know, and who I aspire to be like, they are people who my peers and I respect because we believe in their character. Yes, of course, they are good communicators, who build relationships with their teams, and are able to share an inspiring vision. But those traits are secondary. The primary trait for effective educational leadership is character. I believe in this truth so wholeheartedly that each year I remind my team that, above all, I am committed to:
taking responsibility,
commitment to our shared mission, and
honoring each person’s inherent worth, and perspective.

Integrity is the supreme quality of a leader. A commitment to being honest, and to giving and keeping one’s word, is essential for an educational leader. Nobody will follow someone perceived as dishonest, and deceptive. Closely tied to integrity is authenticity, defined as being and acting consistently as the person the leader claims to be.Responsibility is about acknowledging being “cause in the matter” of the team’s successes and failures. A leader doesn’t blame others for what happens, but instead publicly owns problems and challenges. These three traits, integrity, authenticity, and responsibility are inspiring ethical virtues that all effective leaders share.

In education, like in all ventures aimed at improving society, leaders must be committed to the shared mission, and inspire that commitment in others. In schools, that is often a commitment to follow the maxim to “always do what’s best for kids.” But it goes further than that. Leaders demonstrate and demand consistent focus on the school’s values and mission. I once worked at a school whose mission boiled down to the phrase “use power for good.” Imagine the inspired work that teachers and students would do in a school where the leadership team all maintained a fully realized commitment to always use their power for good! Unlike in the business world, where leaders are usually judged on profits and stock prices, in social profit institutions like schools, effective leadership is characterized by keeping everyone in the organization laser-focused on the mission, and inspiring delivery on the mission with excellence.

Great schools are built on relationships between people. Leaders who don’t value relationships, and don’t build cultures of support for teachers typically fail. In one of his famous TEDTalks, Sir Ken Robinson said “leadership in education is not about command and control; the real role of leadership is ‘climate control.’” Valuing people, listening to their perspectives, and involving them in decision making, creates a culture where people can bring forth the best of themselves. True education leaders know the work of school happens at the faculty level, and that building personal relationships actually builds a culture where anything seems possible.As the saying goes, “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” and any leader who wants to achieve any strategic initiative had better build a culture where teachers feel supported and valued.

Of course there is more to school leadership than strong character. An educational leader in the 21st century must be prepared with a vision to lead in a world that is more global, digitally enabled and transparent, with faster speeds of information flow and innovation, and which is being disrupted by technologies, like artificial intelligence, that lead us to question the essential worth of humanity. A successful 21st century educational leader is always anticipating the next change that will affect our schools. I spend time with innovators, and people in other fields who think differently about the future. I read voraciously outside of educational literature, trying to distill potential shifts and how to plan for them. I attend conferences and devote thirty minutes every day to professional reading. Because the world is changing more rapidly than ever before, an educational leader must not be head-down, but must be able to see around corners by staying curious.

Still, even when I think of the practical competencies that are needed for strong 21st century leadership, I think about relationship building. I have very much benefitted in my career from the diversity of my personal learning network. I have been fortunate to have successfully built personal and professional relationships with people around the country, and around the world, who have very different perspectives from me, regional, functional, political, cultural, and socioeconomic. The differences have been the value, because with our varying perspectives, together we can see patterns within complex problems, and also solutions. These people in my network support and inspire me to have the courage to abandon practices that have made me, or my school, successful in the past. In a changing world, being able to recognize imperatives for change before they become crises, and act upon them, is essential.

Ultimately, what is demanded of the educational leader is the success of the school. Achieving that success takes a range of knowledge, skills, and some good fortune. If the leader understands their responsibility is to be a model learner, and to support the faculty in their ability to deliver the mission with excellence, satisfaction and enthusiasm, success is possible. In my experience, the leaders who succeed are those that commit to being people of strong character.

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