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6 Paths to Better Leadership

Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (www.secdlab.org), Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (engage.rutgers.edu)
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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.

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Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (www.secdlab.org), Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (engage.rutgers.edu)

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63Kristen's picture

These are six great characteristics for leaders. I loved that they were derived from such a wide range of interviewed people from different backgrounds and countries. I am working at becoming a teacher leader. I hope to develop the skills to effectively improve my school and district. Starting strong and simple is one I need to keep in mind. I tend to try to bite off a large piece and then not get very far. I feel that most importantly, as you mentioned, you don't have to be an administrator to be a great leader. You just need the desire, passion, and courage to make your workplace a better place to be.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

[quote]Thanks for this inspirational piece. Now, where can we find these people?[/quote]

That raises an interesting question, doesn't it? Are leaders born or can they be trained/nurtured?

Barbora Bridle's picture
Barbora Bridle
Director of Professional Development at a DC area independent school

Thanks for sharing these 6 leadership principles. Obviously, they convey a lot of wisdom, and would do well being posted right in front of my desk every day. I wonder if patience, perseverance and faith in one's work and the impact on the institution, fits into one of those principles. Maybe under No. 6? Do patience and and faith play a role in optimizing a given situation?

Maurice J. Elias's picture
Maurice J. Elias
Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (www.secdlab.org), Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (engage.rutgers.edu)

I wonder if patience, perseverance and faith in one's work and the impact on the institution, fits into one of those principles. Maybe under No. 6? Do patience and and faith play a role in optimizing a given situation?

Barbara, I think both authors would agree that all of your points fit into the 6 principles somewhere. My sense is that they are part of #3 and #5 generically, and that all 5 (and one's overall Emotional Intelligence) are likely to play a role in optimizing a particular circumstance.

Barbora Bridle's picture
Barbora Bridle
Director of Professional Development at a DC area independent school

Thanks for pointing me back to #5, Maurice. I reread. It is inspiring because it invokes courage and the moral commitment involved in leading people and their organizations. I also see in that a sensitivity to nuances in the existing system, not just plowing through with reforms for the sake of change. That is certainly part of emotional intelligence.

Patrick Faverty's picture

Whenever I read, "six of this", or "10 of that" for leadership or teaching qualities, I ask myself, why is it that we try so hard to simplify the most complex of relationships - teaching and leading? Teaching and leading are ALL about RELATIONSHIPS. Relationships with each other, with the content/curriculum and with the methods we use. There is NO oversimplification possible - it is why we struggle so with accountability. I'm in with Michelle - a true educational leader is more like a coach than anything else - keeping the team engaged, focused and supported!

Alan K. Lipton's picture
Alan K. Lipton
Blog Editor

[quote]Whenever I read, "six of this", or "10 of that" for leadership or teaching qualities, I ask myself, why is it that we try so hard to simplify the most complex of relationships - teaching and leading? [/quote]

Patrick, you're right, we're barely scratching the surface. But we see these simple lists as prompts toward a deeper discussion. And we always welcome your thoughtful input.

Salvy1124's picture

Leadership does not always mean, principal or boss, but someone who is a continuous learner, creative, uses new strategies and information from workshops, and influences others (Laureate Education, 2007). I am currently working on getting my masters in leadership, but at this point in my career, I am looking at teacher leadership. I am very passionate about my classroom and I cannot see myself in the near future give up my students to fully focus on leadership. I am currently working towards becoming on more teams and leadership committees to better myself, such as an interview team, team leader, and taking new responsibilities with my subject area. In one of my current classes I am learning about what it is to be a teacher leader and how to take on this challenge. Three factors that help teacher leaders become successful are to have a goal, persist, and learn to enjoy half a loaf (Ackerman & Mackenzie, 2007). These are important factors to think about in any leadership role, but I also enjoyed learning about the 6 paths to better leadership that are stated in this post. The 6 paths are simple, clear, and appropriate for leadership roles within a school community. Number 2, start strong and simple, made so much sense and I had never thought of it in that way before. When I think leadership, I think solving huge problems that are challenging, but the point in idea number 2 is to start simple and solve a problem that has a solvable challenge. This is genius because the leader gets confidence, as well as shows others that they are serious about solving issues and challenges. Thank you for your post!
Emily Salvatore
References:
Ackerman, R., & Mackenzie, S. (Eds.). (2007). Uncovering teacher leadership: Essays and voices from the field. (Laureate Custom Ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Laureate Education, Inc. (Executive Producer). (2007). Dynamic teacher leadership: Thoughts and perspectives. Baltimore: Author

Margaret Murray's picture

I believe we are all leaders. We strive to continuously improve our skills and attempt to inspire others to become better at what they do.

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