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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Seven Characteristics of a Good Leader

Maurice Elias

Professor, Rutgers University Psychology Department and Edutopia Blogger

Updated 01/2014

How can we determine not only who is a competent leader, but a good leader? Some, like Tom Lickona of the Smart and Good Schools Initiative, believe the proper distinction is between moral and performance character. The former typically refers to having sound values, to be oriented toward an ethical way to behave; the latter refers to the essential importance of having the skills -- particularly SEL skills-- to carry out one's values.

What does this mean for leadership? From a social-emotional and character development (SECD) perspective, it means that the skill-based performance of leaders must be judged along with the character of that performance. And how shall we judge that character?

Sargent Shriver, whose leadership credentials are unrivaled in American public service, believed leaders must act and infuse their organizations with:

1) A sense of purpose: The values of an organization must be clear, members of the organization should know them, and they should exemplify and uphold them in their own actions.

2) Justice: Everyone in an organization should be held to common standards, with rules and procedures that are clear, firm, fair, and consistent.

3) Temperance: A leader must strive to maintain a proper balance of emotions; Shriver did not mean that leaders should be dispassionate. Quite the contrary- but there are time for passionate advocacy and times for quiet reflection and reconsideration. Balance is the key.

4) Respect: The dignity of each individual is the concern of any leader, and this is preserved by treating all members of the organization with respect and ensuring they treat one-another similarly, regardless of differences.

5) Empowerment: Leaders are just that- leaders. Most of what happens in organizations is carried out by individuals other than those in formal leadership positions. Therefore, the more skilled they are, the more they feel confident in their abilities and competent to make decisions, raise questions, see new possibilities, and disagree respectfully with others at all levels of the organizational hierarchy, the stronger and more successful the organization will be.

6) Courage: Leaders are paid to set direction, not wait for direction to emerge. They have to be willing to follow their convictions and bring their organization to new places. In education, this is most sorely needed in response to the test-based regimen that has taken over our schools at the expense of true education and social-emotional and character development.

7) Deep Commitment: Leaders must not be polishing their resumes, but rather should have deep commitment to their organizations, the advancement of the organizations' missions, and the wellbeing of everyone in them. It is this deep commitment that makes leadership in schools so challenging, because it requires a commitment to every employee, student, and parent.

The performance of a leader must be judged by his or her skills and the character of his or her performance in the many and complex roles that leadership demands. Using the seven cornerstones of leading with character, derived from the life and work of Sargent Shriver, educators and those concerned with education have a tool for both evaluating and improving leadership competencies along both moral and performance dimensions.

Maurice Elias

Professor, Rutgers University Psychology Department and Edutopia Blogger
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Comments (21)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

SP's picture
SP
CEO Enterthegroup.com

Great points. I would agree with those 7, and would add that experience is the greatest teacher of them. We can understand them on an intellectual level, but until we're thrown in the fire we don't understand what they truly mean. Thanks.

Samantha Rivers's picture

Everything that was stated I agree with 100%! As I look through all of the characteristics, what jumps out at me is the fact that in order for my classroom to run smoothly, I must exhibit all of these characteristics. I feel that at times, I am guilty of not assuming the leadership position is vital in the success of my classroom when in reality it is. Also, as I reflect back on my teacher preparation courses, there was not a course that taught us these characteristics. Rather, we have to attain them the moment we step into the classroom door.
Thanks for a nice post!

Jennifer Pierson's picture

Mr. Elias, I would like to thank you so very much for your insightful post that is filled with wisdom. I am a pre-service fully licensed teacher who does not yet have her own classroom and to read these character requirements so fully explained is a wonderful bit of knowledge that I can use to my benefit when I one day get to set up my own classroom. I have not thought of my classroom as an organization before, but that comparison really does make sense. I also think that one other attribute of a quality leader would be to employ reflection as a decision making tool. I have just recently gotten a chance to re-visit how important that reflection is in the everyday life of a teacher and to say that it is an essential characteristic of any leader let alone a high-performing teacher is, I think, an understatement. Again, I appreciate your article and your words of wisdom. I will use them in my classroom and in my daily life outside of the classroom; after all, I do think that teachers are called to be leaders within their own communities.

Patrick's picture

I was struck by the truth in this posting. What is truly important to remember is that, in any profession, a true leader leads by example. He or she models for others what they expect of those they lead. These seven (7) core strengths of a leader are the basis of leading by example. The impact a teacher can have on the lives of his or her students is profound. If a teacher does not set a positive example as a leader, they can turn a student off to learning forever. This posting is an important reminder to always remember to be a true, positive leader.

Josh Patterson, PhD's picture
Josh Patterson, PhD
Assistant Principal/Boiling Springs Intermediate School

To this great list, I would add one more characteristic; a strong, effective leader is also one who is instructionally savvy. In my own experience, I believe I have built my own credibility by what I can add in regards to innovative, strong instructional practice. I don't simply ask for their lesson plans, I provide suppoirtive feedback to confirm or develop what they are doing in the classroom. I have communicated that I love being involved in department meeting conversations, providing my own input from my own experiences as well as that of what I read from current research. I strive to be perceived as on who sits with my teachers, not one who sits above them. In this era of standardized testing and accountability, it means more that I can relate to my teachers as one who can empathize with them.

Josh Patterson, PhD's picture
Josh Patterson, PhD
Assistant Principal/Boiling Springs Intermediate School

To this great list, I would add one more characteristic; a strong, effective leader is also one who is instructionally savvy. In my own experience, I believe I have built my own credibility by what I can add in regards to innovative, strong instructional practice. I don't simply ask for their lesson plans, I provide suppoirtive feedback to confirm or develop what they are doing in the classroom. I have communicated that I love being involved in department meeting conversations, providing my own input from my own experiences as well as that of what I read from current research. I strive to be perceived as on who sits with my teachers, not one who sits above them. In this era of standardized testing and accountability, it means more that I can relate to my teachers as one who can empathize with them.

Natalie's picture

I have worked with administrators who demonstrate these characteristics and those who do not and the difference in building morale and communication are astounding. When expectations are well known to all, fair, and consistent, the school is organized and everyone can be held accountable. I also believe the last rule is imperative for an effective leader because of the reponsibility that is required. Luckily I work for very effective leaders within the school and am working to improve my skills as a leader too. I think I can work on "empowerment" because I want to share my expertise with others. This is sometimes hard for me because I am a reserved person!

Lindsey's picture

This post is very truthful and honest. I believe every leader; principal, coach, teacher, mentor, parent, older sibling, account executive, CEO's, etc. should have this list posted somewhere where they can see it each and every day. A leader needs to be reminded that, one, in fact they are a leader, and two, that they must be the example and lead with it. Thank you for your ideas and your honesty.

Lindsey's picture

Thank you for the reality of this post. I believe every teacher, principal, coach, CEO, president, older sibling, etc. should have this list posted somewhere where they can see it EVERY day. Leaders should lead by example and I believe we forget that at times.

MrsEllis's picture

Being part of my schools leadership team as well as the leader of my PLC I find it hard some times to figure out what makes me a good leader and how to show others that I am a good leader. I like that this list not only lays out some key characteristics of a leader but also has a small description underneath to explain. I think that this is an essential list for all "leaders" to have in their classrooms or offices. The one thing that I need to work on from the list is temperance. I tend to get emotional especially when something is not being handled correctly or the students are suffering and I realize after reading the list, that it is important to keep a good temper and listen. Great list!

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