School Leadership

Practicing Community-Based Leadership

Six strategies administrators can use to encourage everyone from students on up to be leaders in their schools and districts.

November 8, 2018
A school administrator working with teachers while writing in a notebook
©iStock/FatCamera

A pastor recently told me that he believes leadership is knowing when to lead from the front (rarely), when to lead from beside (more often), and when to step away so that others in your community can take the lead (frequently). I believe this is true in schools, too. So how do you know when to take one of these approaches?

Listen to your school community for direction. Here are six strategies you can use to foster community-based leadership in your school or district. The great news is these strategies are applicable at all levels of a school or district, from your middle school math team to your student council—and all the way to the central office administrative team.

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Fostering Community-Based Leadership

1. Know that the project isn’t about you. The project (e.g., the master schedule, a group assignment, or a common science assessment) is about the issue you’re trying to solve as a team. The more you can take your own feelings and pride out of the equation, the better.

One way to do this is to track progress toward a measurable goal or clear vision statement. Another is to be quick to give others credit for a job well done—which brings us to the second point.

2. Say thank you. Great leaders recognize and appreciate others’ strengths. They thank their teammates, classmates, or colleagues for their specific contributions to a project.

At my school, we have a tradition of celebrating gratitude every Thursday. All day on Thankful Thursday, we make a special point of sharing what and whom we’re thankful for. I encourage our teachers and students to be specific and generous in their praise, and I strive to do the same.

3. Be willing to do the unglamorous work. Be willing to do any task in the project, including the ones that aren’t fun or glamorous. Great leaders are often the first to start a work session and the last to finish.

Don’t ask anyone on your team to do something you aren’t personally willing to do, whether that’s picking up trash on the soccer field, sharing a personal truth, or working late.

For example, I use a lot of story sharing in my work with both students and teachers. Sharing personal stories requires trust and courage. I always open these activities by acknowledging that this is hard—and then volunteer to be the first to share a vulnerable story.

4. Own your mistakes and areas for improvement. It can be scary to admit when you’ve made a mistake or need some help. Sometimes we worry that doing so will make us seem weak or less competent. In fact, the opposite is usually true.

Be quick to apologize when you make a mistake. This not only humanizes you (since mistakes are part of the human condition) but also normalizes making mistakes, which is essential for finding creative solutions. Remember, leaders work in teams for a reason. Be open to asking for help, and acknowledge when someone else on your team has a talent you need on a project.

5. Listen to others. Great leaders recognize that everyone on the team (as well as people outside the team) has wisdom. Ask lots of questions and value others’ opinions. Be open to trying everyone’s ideas, and when those ideas work well, say so—and say thank you.

At my first teaching job, our school’s head custodian launched an important mentoring program for boys. This program gave the young men who participated invaluable opportunities in service and leadership. Great leadership can come from anyone—and the more time I’ve spent in schools, the more I know that our support staff are often our most inspiring role models for community-based leadership.

6. Value culture. Invest in building a positive culture. Get to know everyone on your team as human beings. Address people by their names. Know what holidays your colleagues and students celebrate. Learn how to say “good morning” in their home language. Make time to laugh, visit, and have a sandwich together.

When you walk into a community-based classroom or school, you can often sense the inclusivity, creativity, and sense of gratitude straightaway. These environments feel like home—they feel like safe places for learning. Usually they also feel as though everything fell together naturally.

But don’t be fooled: There are great leaders—including teachers, students, and support staff—behind such environments. Vibrant learning communities don’t happen by accident; like all good things, they must be nurtured with both intentionality and compassion.