The leaders I admire, and the leadership I strive to practice, are mixtures of confidence, humility, and empathy. It’s common sense. What follows are attributes of leadership that I have gleaned from the incredible mentors from whom I have been blessed to learn. These attributes match very well what leadership experts propose:
- Leaders are listeners, learners, influencers, and persuaders: In my experiences, a leader who dictates and mandates either won’t last long or will impact short-term shifts that just won’t last. I believe that our shortcomings in these areas are related to, unfortunately incorrect assumptions. We sometimes, tragically, assume that the individuals who we lead don’t know, of worse, don’t care. In fact, leaders are coaches, whether interpreted as athletic coaches or cognitive coaches; leaders assume that the individuals who they are honored to lead possess great abilities. Our job is to bring out the best in those we serve, in those we coach. We do this by listening to understand, by learning about the needs and perspectives of all stakeholders, by summarizing and openly problem-solving, and by influencing and persuading individuals and the team to even higher levels of performance. Yes, we must be patiently persistent – the stakes for students are too high – but coaches combine patience and persistence in a blend informed by love, respect, energy, and high expectations. I memorably forgot this lesson as a school principal (most definitely not the only time I failed as a leader). The school team had identified a goal and had agreed to meet it, but my ego led me astray. I became myopically focused on my idea about how to meet the goal and failed to listen and learn. We recognized that we needed to increase the amount of time that students spent engaged in instructional tasks. I heard of a school that had extended their school day by thirty minutes and increased potential instructional time by over two hours a week. I cajoled (and strong-armed) the staff and community into adopting this plan. I wasn’t listening, I was rushing; and I was definitely attempting to move faster than the speed of trust. Luckily, the staff with which I worked was amazing. They pointed out that there were concerns, even flaws, in my plan. I finally listened. They further pointed out that there were other approaches that would result in us also meeting our goal. Through their creativity, we did just that and annual student achievement continued to increase. When I shifted from dictator to coach and facilitated the change process, we effectively and happily made changes that benefited all stakeholders. Leadership is as collaborative as teaching.
- Leadership must be shared and developed: Leadership is infinite. The job is too challenging for there to be a limited number of leaders. Administrators are leaders, teachers are leaders (of their departments, their teams, their classrooms), parents are leaders. Even if a new leader (at the district or site) could do it alone, the more empowered an individual, the more invested the individual. Leaders must be confident and humble to share “power” and we should be; we’ve already got the job and the best way of keeping the job is to trust colleagues and empower the individuals with whom we work. The district in which I work models this practice is two significant ways. First, every administrator at every level receives extensive leadership professional learning opportunities at least once a month. These 2-4 hour opportunities build the capacity of the positional leaders within the district. Not surprisingly, the focus of these sessions is on listening to, learning with, and influencing the colleagues we serve to even higher levels of effectiveness. The second example of the district’s commitment to shared leadership is the monthly, multi-hour session with our PLC facilitator coaches. These coaches are provided release time within their day to lead their colleagues in the work of teaching and learning within PLC teams. It’s an example of leaders supporting leaders who support leaders – district leaders build the capacity of the PLC facilitator-coach leaders who support their teacher-leader colleagues back at their sites. Both of these commitments to nurturing leaders within the district are big investments of money and time into the shared responsibility of serving our colleagues, students, and communities.
- Empowering colleagues is a key goal of PLCs at Work: A reason for the enduring legacy of PLCs at Work is that there is more to the concept than the powerful practices that districts, schools, and teams apply. An underlying principle of PLCs at Work is that we believe in one another. Educators who fully embrace their professional responsibilities understand that leaders exist at all levels of the organization and that the educators closest to the student – teacher teams – are best positioned to make decisions – to lead – in areas related to curriculum and instruction.
Leaders are primary shapers of cultures.
It’s common sense; if our goals are engaged stakeholders, leaders must take the lead in intentionally fostering cultures of high expectations.
I believe that we have as much growth to make in the art and science of leadership as we do in any other single aspect of our incredible profession. We most definitely have the capacity to make this growth. We will go a long way toward improving as leaders by increasingly viewing leadership as a collaborative endeavor.
Our leadership is never more needed than it is in designing systems of supports for all students that proactively prepare for the anticipatable needs of our students.