Professional Learning

6 Paths to Better Leadership

School leaders can undertake these six key tasks to make a difference in the lives of their students and improve school communities. 

July 18, 2013 Updated December 20, 2016

Leadership in education is more important now than ever. Demands on instructional time are escalating, and accountability pressures are increasing. The historically neglected areas of social-emotional and civic competence are emerging as essentials. For leaders who know what direction they want to head, there are six key tasks that must be undertaken.

Based on a combination of interviews with educational leaders by Mark Goldberg, and the observations of David Gergen after serving in the White House under several presidents from both political parties (Eyewitness to Power, 2000), here are the six tasks:

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. 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, a chance to experience the new leadership style together. When 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 articulate a realistic and clear vision of how the organization will look in the future, and help others see the vision as congruent with their own concerns, goals, or deep beliefs. They must communicate and model their strong convictions so that they inspire others to sustained action, even when the leader is "not looking." Others with leadership roles or responsibilities also must embrace and articulate the vision.

4. Lead Morally

Leaders must have a strong moral compass. 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. Even more than technical training, the leader must help members of the organization and constituents have a deep understanding of the mission and vision and a commitment to collaborate in pursuit of that shared understanding. 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. 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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