Professional Learning

12 Qualities of a Successful Education Leader

7 Min Read
May Leaders 2

This post was originally published on Eric Sheninger's blog, A Principal's Reflections.

Leadership is leadership. The same essential qualities and characteristics that exemplify what great education leaders do have pretty much stayed the same through the years. What has changed are the tools, research, and societal shifts that impact the work.

Leadership is both an art and a science with the goal of moving the masses toward achieving a common goal. Even though I have written extensively on the topic over the years, I am always on the lookout for more insights that can help others, including myself, excel in the role. Recently, I came across this image by it-agile. Not only does it align with what we know about effective educational leadership, it also reminds us to keep our focus on the important stuff.

1. Create a strong vision.

A vision can undoubtedly change the culture of any organization if it is shared and co-created, but the real work and testament to great leadership is moving from the visioning process to developing a strategic plan to turn vision into reality. Whereas developing a shared vision is an attribute linked to all great leaders, the best leaders ensure that a strategic plan is formed and then meticulously implemented. A vision has to result in a plan, which provides a focus for the change initiative. The plan then has to be monitored and evaluated if the desired outcome is sustainable change that leads to transformation.

2. Set the direction.

When a ship sets sail, a course is plotted, and different elements are used to arrive at the desired destination. Leaders set the direction by developing achievable and practical goals that are clearly communicated. You will not find an effective leader who is not also an effective communicator. If people are unclear about where they are (or where they should be headed), the chances of success are limited.

3. Set boundaries.

Leaders know that a free-for-all will not necessitate needed change. Boundaries need to be established to keep everyone in tune with the vision and agreed-upon course of action. The best way to accomplish this is to set some norms and stick to them. Just make sure these are not too restrictive as you want your staff to be open to taking risks. Boundaries are crucial to establishing and sustaining relationships. Without trust, there is no relationship. If there is no relationship, no real learning or change will occur.

4. Forget carrots and sticks.

If you have not read Drive by Dan Pink, I suggest you do. The problem with extrinsic rewards is that people will always expect them, and they rarely result in sustained changes to culture. As Pink revealed, the keys to unlocking and sustaining intrinsic motivation are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Great education leaders help others see the value in their work and see change in terms of how it will help to improve their practice.

5. Be a teacher.

The best leaders are the best teachers, according to research by Sydney Finkelstein, who spent 10 years studying the difference between world-class and typical people in leadership positions. He found that the "stars" emphasized ongoing, intensive one-on-one tutoring for the people who worked for (and with) them, either in person or virtually, in the course of daily work. This personalized approach is what we see from highly effective teachers who work tirelessly to meet the needs of all their students. Finkelstein shares the following:

The best leaders routinely spent time in the trenches with employees, passing on technical skills, general tactics, business principles, and life lessons. Their teaching was informal and organic, flowing out of the tasks at hand. And it had an unmistakable impact: Their teams and organizations were some of the highest-performing in their sectors.
6. Admit mistakes.

Everyone makes mistakes. However, by not admitting or owning up to this fact, a culture of trust is hard to come by. Being human means that you will screw up once in a while. Own your mistakes, but don’t let them own you. One final thought: Don’t dwell on the mistake. Remember what you learned from it.

7. Lead by example.

Don’t ask others to do what you are not willing to do or have not done yourself. Leadership is about action—not position, title, or power. When all is said and done, effective leaders don’t tell others what to do but instead take them to where they need to be. You get what you model.

8. Encourage leadership at all levels.

One woman or man does not sustain change. Think about this for a second. Have you ever seen a leader personally implement the vision or every idea he or she came up with? Sure, an individual can begin the process, but it takes a collective effort to make change stick. Building capacity through delegation and trust empowers others to be an active part of the process. Leadership is a team sport.

9. Address the elephant in the room.

The "elephant" can come in many shapes and sizes. In some cases, it is the 5 percent of the people in the system who give you 95 percent of the problems. In other situations, it can be an unpopular decision, lack of resources, or dwindling support. Regardless of what the issue is, the most effective leaders don’t shy away from addressing it. Leadership is not a popularity contest.

10. Improve the system.

Leaders sink or swim based on how well they can help their organization find and sustain success. It is a calling and a responsibility to move a culture forward in a way that achieves better results. The best leaders are all about ensuring efficacy in any idea, strategy, decision, or program. They also embrace accountability as part of the process.

11. Rise above fear.

We are all afraid of something. However, we cannot let that stop us from improving professional practice. Fear of the unknown or failure holds us back from moving forward with change. I love this quote from Zig Ziglar: “F-E-A-R has two meanings: 'Forget Everything and Run' or 'Face Everything and Rise.' The choice is yours.”

Life is all about choices. We can ill afford to allow fear to hold our learners and us back from what’s possible. It is essential to understand that if we fear the risk, then we will never reap the reward that taking the risk provides. When trying something new or different, the chances are good that you will fail. If and when you do, learn from the experience and use the power of reflection to improve practice or yourself. By letting go of some of your fear, you will be surprised at what you can accomplish.

12. Be prepared for a long journey.

Leadership is not a race or event. It is a process. Meaningful change rarely happens quickly. Transforming culture takes time, so patience is a virtue here. This is not to say that there shouldn’t be a sense of urgency with some aspects. The fact of the matter is that system-wide results and achieving success take time. Set expectations and goals knowing full well that they might not fully materialize for a few years.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.


Blog contributor Eric Sheninger is an ICLE Senior Fellow and thought leader on digital leadership and learning. You can book a keynote with him to help your school or district explore solutions for leading and learning in the digital age. You can also view our full list of thought leaders, who provide customized presentations on a range of key education issues.

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