4 Characteristics of Effective Education Leaders

I have worked for and with excellent education leaders who have improved morale and inspired students and teachers alike to accomplish much more than previously thought possible. I've also had a few experiences with some leaders who have caused damage to a school culture. There are four particular leadership characteristics that I appreciate most in the education leaders I encounter.

Communicate a clear vision with a clear "why."

In The Truth About Leadership, James Kouzes and Barry Posner explain what sets leaders apart from other team members:
The capacity to imagine and articulate exciting future possibilities is the defining competence of leaders. Leaders are custodians of the future. They are concerned about tomorrow's world and those who will inherit it. (p. 46)
In schools, administrators and curriculum leaders need to be able to imagine and articulate the future that students will face. Then they need to communicate how educators can help them practice and refine the skills and knowledge they'll need to be ready for that future. Here are some guiding questions:
  • Why are we here? While it may seem obvious why educators have chosen their careers, this question goes deeper. Why are you in this community? Why do we believe in this school and these specific students? What is the one thing we want our students to know or believe when they graduate?
  • What do we do? The answer to this question will help everyone in the school understand how they are going to accomplish the goals set out by the school leader. What is the path and what can we do – day-in and day-out – in our classrooms to continue on that path and reach that goal?
  • What do we need from one another and ourselves to do those things? Every member of the school community has strengths to contribute and areas where they need help from others. A great leader recognizes all the puzzle pieces and how they fit together to reveal the vision.

Empower the people around them to follow their passions for the benefit of all.

In The Principal: Three Keys to Maximizing Impact, Michael Fullan explains what motivates people to perform at their best:
Humans are fundamentally motivated by two factors: doing things that are intrinsically meaningful to themselves, and working with others–peers, for example–in accomplishing worthwhile goals never before reached. (p. 7)
Once everyone in a school or district community understands the vision and how they will get there, they need to determine how their special skills and passions will help them contribute to the community effort to reach that goal. Every teacher has a slightly different set of skills and expertise, but an education leader will know how to help teachers leverage them for the benefit of all. Here are some concrete strategies:
  • When an educator finds his/her passion and it is a passion that will benefit students' learning and well-being, a great leader will stop at nothing to remove barriers for that educator to pursue that passion.
  • Once you've identified your teachers' passions and talents, find out if they are willing to use them to help the school community work toward its larger goals. Make them team leaders, committee members, and encourage them to pilot new approaches and technologies with their students.

Model risk-taking, reflection, and growth.

In Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck explains the qualities that school leaders should nurture in the teachers they work with:
[Growth-minded teachers] are not entirely selfless. They love to learn. And teaching is a wonderful way to learn. About people and how they tick. About what you teach. About yourself. And about life. (p. 201)
School leaders who want to stimulate and nurture these characteristics in their teachers should first model the behaviors of a lifelong learner. Get started with a few of these strategies:
  • Take risks when designing professional learning, be open about those risks, and encourage teachers to do the same with their own lesson designs. Here are some ideas for how to modle risk-taking from a previous blog post and an article I co-authored for EdSurge.
  • Involve teachers and students in decision-making while still being decisive. If using surveys, share the data openly with your faculty and staff and explain how it is being used. When creating committees, be sure they truly have some say over the decisions they are charged with.

Build positive and honest relationships

In order to build a community of trust in which everyone knows they will be both lifted up and held accountable, leaders must be willing to have difficult conversations at the right times. In Managing Difficult Conversations, Fred Kofman explains how to remain true to yourself and open to your counterpart so you can arrive at a fair conclusion:
You want three things out of these conversations: Feel good about yourself, relate to the other person positively, and achieve your shared goals. Instead of jumping into a the problem, remember that how the other person feels is primary in order to make the conversation successful.
When education leaders can model how to manage the process of a difficult conversation with their faculty it will lead to a more honest and positive culture throughout the school. Here are a few things to remember:
  • Tough conversations don't have to be adversarial. All parties are involved in the conversation because they have a goal. If they can figure out what aspects those goals are shared then they can move forward together.
  • Critical friends are possible. Consider learning and utilizing structure to help with particularly difficult conversations. Protocols can help provide that structure and lay some ground rules that will ensure the conversation will not stray from its intended purpose.

These four characteristics are not meant to be an exhaustive list. What characteristics have you encountered in the effective leaders you've worked with? If you are a leader, what characteristics do you strive to improve?


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