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 (