George Lucas Educational Foundation

The Difference Between Administrator and Leader

The Difference Between Administrator and Leader

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I believe that each of us has a leader within and that educational leadership is not the sole domain of school administrators. I've see classroom teachers step up and lead incredible school transformations without the authority of a title or degree. But that's a topic for another day. Today, I want to examine the not so secret, ‘secret’ among educators:

While every school has at least one administrator, few have leaders.

A recent workshop participant paraphrased Peter Drucker and said it this way,

"Administrators do things right. Leaders do the right things."

While that simple statement captures some of the gulf between leadership and administration, I think it falls far short.

I have a long list, developed over many educational leadership seminars, that outlines the differences between administrators and leaders; but today I'll start with the one element that seems to encompass so many others…

Leaders deal from their hearts as well as their minds; administrators work almost exclusively from the mental framework.

We’ve all encountered administrators who kick off the school year with speeches stating the districts goals and objectives, or by reciting well meaning mission statements; but it's rare to find leaders who articulate a vision and inspire their staffs to embrace that vision.

Administrators are comfortable speaking from and appealing to the cognitive domain, hoping others see the logic of their goals and objectives; while leaders want to stir the hearts, as well as the minds of those they seek to lead.

It's the power of the heart that injects a special energy into the team. Leaders who use their hearts and minds when they speak have an authenticity that creates trust. Administrators who speak only from their heads may say the right words; they may have perfect scripts; but they appear less authentic, less fully committed, and therefore they create less trust.

Without trust it’s difficult to lead effectively.

I remember the Principal at my son’s eighth grade graduation ceremony speaking to the audience of proud parents and students. His first words were,

“I can’t tell you how excited I am to be here with you tonight.”

Unfortunately, he spoke these words in a monotone with no emotion (heart). Even worse, there was no smile, no crack in his bland and blank façade. He continued this way through the entire speech.

While I have no doubt that deep inside he meant every word he spoke; because he closed off his heart when delivered his words, it destroyed his message. It reeked of an administrator fulfilling his job requirements, when it could have been a leader expressing gratitude to his victorious 8th grade troops and sending them off to the high school full of inspiration and hope.

Not every leader needs to be a charismatic speaker. Even speakers who speak haltingly and uncomfortably, if they speak from the heart, touch the hearts of those around them; their authenticity comes through and with that, trust flows. We feel their commitment.

One of the first steps in the transformation from administrator to leader is to access the power of the heart. Tapping into the heart shows up in every aspect of leadership, not just in speaking. It is a way of tethering ourselves to something deeper than just our ideas and thoughts. It ties us to our purpose, values, and beliefs.

When we work from this place, we're grounded. We don’t change directions every time the political breezes shift. We are more apt to go the extra mile, even if it seems risky. We walk our own talk. We don’t have hidden agendas, they’re all out there for people to see. When we work from the heart, we don’t make decisions based solely on complicated political calculations; but we factor in our beliefs and values.

Most importantly, when we're grounded in the heart, we have the courage of a leader. Interestingly, the word courage comes from the French root ‘cour’ or heart. As leaders we don’t avoid difficult conversations, or put off difficult decisions out of fear. We address them because they need to be addressed. The heart gives us the strength and passion to do the difficult things.

The transformation from administrator to leader is largely a journey of the heart.

This post was created by a member of Edutopia's community. If you have your own #eduawesome tips, strategies, and ideas for improving education, share them with us.

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Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

I agree completely, Pete! I have seen the best administrators show their heart and humanity by opening up in front of the staff at meetings, by listening to teachers about not just our classroom work but our personal lives, too, and by communicating from the heart when talking with students. I'm curious, though, about whether an administrator can learn how to do this if he/she isn't currently. How would you suggest this be addressed, in both training new admin and intervening for less effective admin?

Pete Reilly's picture
Pete Reilly
Author, "A Path with Heart: The Inner Journey to Teaching Mastery" and "In the Garden of Hearts: Meditations, Consolations, and Blessings for Teachers"

Your question comes up a lot, "Can the personal attributes of an effective leader be learned?" Fortunately, the answer is, "Yes." Unfortunately, there are very few programs for leaders that focus on cultivating the 'self' of the leader. My book "A Path With Heart: The Inner Journey to Teaching Mastery" attempt to lay out a path for developing effective teacher and leaders.

BTW, I'm an example of an educator who was not a great leader, but through many years of specialized leadership development work, actually developed my gifts and rewired some of the habits and patterns of behavior that were getting in the way of my effectiveness.

As we move on in our careers we begin to see that personal development and professional development are really two sides of the same coin.

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

I love hearing that you changed your ways in order to improve your leadership! And I agree that we don't have enough resources for educators who need help in that area. What you describe in your post above is important for everyone involved in education, not just admin. Thanks for sharing your story!

Pete Reilly's picture
Pete Reilly
Author, "A Path with Heart: The Inner Journey to Teaching Mastery" and "In the Garden of Hearts: Meditations, Consolations, and Blessings for Teachers"

I've written quite a bit about the power of trust in the workplace, especially in schools. Research, as well as our own experience, teach us that building relationships and creating trust are not supplemental activities. They must be conscientiously cultivated and sustained; and to do this well, we're challenged to cultivate our gifts, our personal attributes, and our hearts. For it's this inner "self " that engenders and elicits trust. Trust is the seed from which all relationships grow.

Here are a few research studies from my book that illustrate the point. Positive trust relationships between students, teachers, principals, and parents:

1. Are much stronger predictors of gains in math in elementary and middle school than class size, teacher experience, or the availability of instructional supplies (Sara Rimm-Kaufman, 2002)
2. Are even more significant for "at risk" students (Baker, 2006).
3. Are better predictors of improved reading performance for children exhibiting aggression, hyperactivity, anxiety, depression, and learning problems than for children without these
risk factors (Baker, 2006).
4. Help kindergarten children continue to develop better academic and social skills as they near their middle school years, in contrast to those that experience conflict in their teacher
relationships in kindergarten (Berry and O'Connor, 2009).
5. Produce more engagement and motivation in their students. (Battistich, Schaps, and Wilson, 2004).
6. Are a critical factor in predicting which schools will make the greatest gains in student achievement and which will sustain those gains over time. In schools where there is greater levels of trust, student achievement is generally higher and the gains are
lasting (Bryk and Schnieder 2002).
7. Are a critical vehicle not only for improving student success but also for overcoming some of the disadvantages of poverty. For teachers to help students access the opportunities that schooling can provide, they need to build trust (Watson, 2003).7
8. Contribute to students' developing better psychological wellbeing, more rewarding relationships with parents and others, academic success, higher school completion, better employment experiences, and fewer problems with peers (Bryant
and Zimmerman, 2003; Bubois and Silverthorn, 2005; Greenberger, Chen, and Beam, 1998; McDonald, et al., 2007; Rhodes, Ebert, and Fischer, 1992; Zimmerman, Bingenheimer,
and Notaro, 2002).
9. When combined with strategies that empower students, and validate them as individuals, the relationships contribute to their academic success and their personal growth and produce
more engagement and motivation (Birch and Ladd, 1997).
10. Contribute to developing students who are less likely to avoid school and are more self-directed, more cooperative, and more fully engaged in learning (Birch and Ladd, 1997; Klem & Connell, 2004).
The academic, social, and personal benefits of trusting relationships are truly breathtaking!
I hope this helps.

All Students Thrive's picture
All Students Thrive
Changing the World One Conversation at a Time!

Great...I have seen when a balance of passion, wisdom, benevolence, and action come together in one person, the result is a great leader. School vision must be lived! Great leaders don't just inspire others to take actions: they inspire others to inspire others to take action.

I have recently written about the importance of inspiring teachers to engage in their own narrative and legacy to build leadership capacity. Yes leadership can be taught!


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