We know a lot about effective leadership in education — and we keep learning the same lessons over and over. Between 1989 and 2000, Mark Goldberg interviewed 43 leaders across a spectrum of positions in or related to education. He spoke with men and women of varied ethnicity and age, some for whom English was not their first or even primary language.
David Gergen, in 2000, published Eyewitness to Power, summarizing his perspective on leadership after having served in the White House for several presidents from both political parties. Though derived from a wider range of proven examples, the lessons learned have great resonance because they can apply to education. Here they are:
1. Believe and Envision
Leaders must have a core belief that can be communicated with clarity, concision and passion. This is referred to as a bedrock belief (Goldberg) and a compelling vision (Gergen).
2. Start Strong and Simple
Leaders must get off to a quick, sure start. And this is especially true for those new to the leadership role: leaders must inspire confidence. Rather than take on the most challenging problems, it’s best to start with a small, potentially solvable challenge. This gives everyone a chance to see how the leader will work and, for those more directly involved, to experience the new leadership style together. Should efforts flounder, much will be learned from how setbacks are handled.
3. Persuade and Inspire
Leaders must have skills to persuade and inspire. They must be able to help others see the vision in action; see it as congruent with their own concerns, goals or deep beliefs; and do so with a strength that inspires others to sustained action, even when the leader is “not looking.” Others with leadership roles or responsibilities must own the vision, too.
4. Lead Morally
Leaders must have a strong social conscience. To follow any leader, others must be convinced of that leader’s dedication to equity, fairness, overcoming disadvantage and giving voice. It’s fair to say that not everyone will perceive these attributes on the part of the leaders, but his or her core followers definitely must.
5. Demonstrate Courage and Compromise
Leaders must have the courage to swim upstream. Because leadership ultimately is a moral commitment, leaders must be prepared to take risks, buck trends, show courage, persist, embolden others and use a nuanced sense of compromise. (In an instructional setting, these are qualities that teachers ultimately want to transfer to their students so that their educational default is not passive compliance.)
6. Optimize Any Situation
Leaders must excel at situational mastery and emotional intelligence. According to Goldberg (June 2001, Phi Delta Kappan, p.760), “I do not believe that any of the people I interviewed could have exchanged positions and had the same success.” Ultimately, leaders must have the emotional intelligence skills to optimize the situation in which they find themselves and the resources at hand, and inspire others to undertake maximal efforts. Those involved must understand and collaborate. What the leader can accomplish directly is limited, especially in large and complex educational settings. Hence, distributed leadership is essential for sustainability.
One need not be a principal, superintendent or school board president to be a school leader. Leaders are those who step up to help their organizations succeed. They take a larger measure of responsibility for keeping track of the big picture. In the coming school year, consider how you can exercise greater leadership.
Also consider the areas where your involvement can help make your school or district a better place. Let this year be your own personal leadership year.