Educational Leaders Through the Lens of Academic Excellence

Educational leaders play a vital role in areas such as student graduation rates, teacher retention, and standardized test scores. What does it mean to lead an institution? Is leading the same as managing? What skills are essential to becoming a successful leader, and can those skills be taught?

The Primary Role of a Leader

In addition to creating a vision for the future, developing a strategic plan, and setting high but attainable expectations, the role of a leader in education is to motivate and inspire others; to model effective and ethical practice; and to facilitate leadership development in other team members.

Leadership vs. Management

Depending on the type of educational institution, it is common to see managers, leaders, and a combination of both. For example, a small elementary school may only have one building principal who may be responsible not only for leading the faculty and staff, but also to manage all major projects and initiatives. A large university, on the other hand, will typically employ multiple staff to serve in management and leadership roles, often focusing on a particular specialty area. However, a few general statements can be made regarding the two:

Although they are intertwined on many levels, there is a difference between management and leadership in an educational environment. Successful management of projects or departments is one piece of advancing the institution’s mission. Typically, a manager is assigned to oversee a specific department, or a specific project within that department to meet a defined goal or need. It is his or her responsibility to ensure success with direct accountability to a leader–often a superintendent, dean, provost, or president.

A leader must be an effective manager, but from a macro level. A leader is the point person to drive the institution’s vision, mission, and strategic goals. He or she is often the “face” of the school, meeting with the public, potential donors, the press, or politicians. A leader must be able to see the big picture while at the same time have a working knowledge of the details. However, delving too much into the weeds of a project can cause unexpected problems. When leaders micromanage departments or projects, it signals a lack of trust to managers; it breeds confusion and suspicion and ultimately reduces efficiency and success. So, it is incumbent upon a leader to hire the right people, and then trust them to get the job done.

Essential Skills All Effective Leaders Must Have

There are some skills that all educational leaders must have in order to be successful:

  • An effective leader must be truly committed to academic excellence. By setting high expectations for ethical practice and academic outcomes, a leader can inspire others to achieve great things.
  • An effective leader must be an exceptional communicator, both verbally and in written form. It’s not enough to have great ideas—one must be able to communicate them to others to have those ideas come to fruition.
  • An effective leader must be an exceptional listener. When one person is doing all the talking, he or she rarely learns much from others in the room. By actively and purposefully listening to others, a leader shows respect to others; gains a better understanding of a given issue; receives suggestions for tackling a problem; and builds a stronger sense of trust.
  • An effective leader must be competent. We cannot all be experts in everything, but if we are to lead others, we must have a solid command of the subject matter or the field. Educational leaders must stay current with relevant literature, research, patterns, and trends.
  • An effective leader must have confidence. It is difficult to lead others when we don’t communicate that we truly believe the path being taken is the right one.
  • An effective leader must ensure proper recognition of managers and other team members for their contributions, particularly in the context of a significant or particularly challenging project. It’s necessary to motivate and inspire, but we must also show appreciation and recognition.
  • An effective leader must be fair. Showing favoritism, even the suggestion of it, can quickly diminish team morale and motivation. A leader must make it clear that all members of the team will be treated equally.
  • An effective leader must be prepared to make tough decisions. There are times when institutions must face difficult budget shortfalls and steps must be taken to reduce expenditures. There are also times when one or more staff members are not performing up to expectations. An effective leader must be willing and able to make the decisions necessary to ensure the overall quality and well-being of a program, a department, or an entire institution. Decisions may not always be popular, but they are necessary, and if a leader fails to make them he or she simply is not doing the job that individual was hired to do.

Can Leadership Skills be Developed?

The short answer is yes. While there are certainly personality traits that we are born with that lend themselves well to taking on a role of leadership, specific skill sets must be developed, honed, and practice. In fact, the National Education Association (NEA) has identified a set of core competencies that are designed to equip educators with the knowledge and skills they need to become effective leaders. In addition, the Educational Leadership Constituent Council (ELCC) holds schools of education accountable for how well they prepare future school leaders under the umbrella of seven professional standards. It is extremely important for educational leaders to develop a strong base of content knowledge and to gain practice in applying that knowledge in variety of educational settings. Moreover, the importance of mentoring support and ongoing professional development cannot be over-emphasized.

The Bottom Line

The success of an educational institution will be directly impacted by the quality of its leadership. As a community of educators we must be committed to preparing, selecting, and supporting our educational leaders through the lens of academic excellence.

 

Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher is a national leader in quality assurance, educator preparation, and empowerment-based learning. She supports educational institutions and non-profit agencies in areas such as accreditation, competency-based education, and teacher/school leader prep programs design.  Roberta also writes about academic excellence and can be contacted for consultations, webinars, and on-site workshops through her site (www.robertarossfisher.com). 

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HELP WANTED: EXCEPTIONAL LEADERS. OTHERS NEED NOT APPLY.

HELP WANTED: An exceptional leader who desires to make a positive and lasting impact on the lives of others. This individual must be able to: work well under stress; collaborate with others; manage and lead; inspire and motivate; and yield results. The ideal candidate will demonstrate the following attributes:

  • High moral standards
  • Strict personal ethics
  • Executive energy
  • Exceptional organization skills
  • Artful communication skills
  • Loyalty

 

It’s difficult to find individuals who meet these criteria; isn’t it? Over the years we’ve gotten used to settling for less than the very best. Sometimes we settle because we’re in a hurry to fill a position; other times we’re more focused on saving a few bucks so we hire someone less qualified, less experienced, less committed, and less successful. In some instances, individuals come along who possess few of the skills we’re looking for, but they are charismatic and convincing, only to leave a path of destruction for others to clean up. Regardless of the reason, we eventually we pay a price for not insisting on hiring the very best leaders.

There actually is one individual who meets all the criteria above—it’s Robert Frances Kennedy. In fact, he was described in this way by his brother, President John F. Kennedy, in an interview with Newsweek magazine in early 1963 (Matthews 2017).  In respectful observance of his tragic death this week in 1968, I think it’s important that we reflect on what true leadership is. We need more leaders today like Bobby Kennedy, and we need to be teaching leadership skills in our P-12 schools to nurture those qualities in our young people so they in turn can fill important societal roles in the future. President Kennedy said that anybody can have ideas—the problem lies in actually making them happen. Helping students to identify problems, develop ideas for solving those problems, and then taking action to yield results are important skills that schools should build into their curriculum starting in kindergarten.

Since my field is education, that is the lens through which I look most often. But I think real leaders probably possess many of the same attributes, skills, and dispositions regardless of which sector they serve in. Specifically:

In addition to building a vision for the future, developing a strategic plan, and setting high but attainable expectations, a leader’s major role is to motivate and inspire others; to model effective and ethical practice; and to facilitate growth in other team members.

I think there is a distinction between management and leadership, but they are intertwined on many levels. Those assigned to roles of responsibility must be adept at both.

Successful management is one piece of advancing the institution’s mission, but leaders must be careful not to micromanage because it can signal a lack of trust, breed confusion and ultimately, can productivity and success. Delegate responsibilities to others when appropriate but lead when necessary.

I believe an effective leader must be truly committed to academic excellence. By setting high expectations for ethical practice and academic outcomes, a leader can inspire others to achieve great things.

Likewise, an effective leader must have confidence. It is difficult to lead others when we don’t communicate that we truly believe the path being taken is the right one.

An effective leader must ensure proper recognition of other team members for their contributions, particularly in the context of a significant or challenging project. It’s necessary to motivate and inspire, but we must also show appreciation and recognition.

And finally, an effective leader must be prepared to make tough decisions. He or she must be willing and able to make the decisions necessary to ensure program quality, because if a leader fails in that arena he or she simply is not doing the job they were hired to do.

The bottom line is that an effective leader must wholeheartedly believe in the cause he or she is leading—must be completely committed to success—and must treat others with respect and appreciation.

For so many reasons, I truly wish Bobby Kennedy was still with us. But, we can still learn from him and others like him. We must commit to building a nation of true leaders. I think our way of life depends on it.

–rrf

Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher is a national leader in educator preparation, accreditation, online learning, and academic quality assurance. An accomplished presenter, writer, and educator, she currently supports higher education, P-12 schools, and non-profit agencies in areas such as competency-based education, new program design, gap analysis, quality assurance, leadership, outcomes-based assessment, and accreditation through her company, Global Educational Consulting, LLC. She also writes about academic excellence and can be contacted for consultations through her blog site (www.robertarossfisher.com).

 

 

Matthews, C. (2017). Bobby Kennedy: A raging spirit. New York: Simon & Schuster.