Education Opinion

The Charismatic Leader

February 17, 2006 2 min read

“Woe to leadership,” a sage proclaimed 2,000 years ago, “for it buries those who possess it.” What was true then may be even truer now, particularly for teacher-leaders, administrators, and the like under mounting pressure to turn their schools into high-test-score factories. Brubaker quotes a harassed principal who compared his situation to being in a hospital at night: “They come into your room every two hours and say, ‘Are you doing OK?’ They think they’re making you better by checking on you. All I want and need is a good night’s sleep.”

How is an educational leader to cope? The principal did it by retiring at the end of the school year. Brubaker, a professor emeritus of educational leadership and cultural studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, would have preferred he become a “charismatic leader.”

“Charisma” is a slippery concept. Surprisingly, Brubaker doesn’t develop it with as much care as he might. He defines charisma as “a gift that allows you to influence others” and calls it “a kind of virtue.”

But charisma isn’t inherently virtuous. Charles Manson is charismatic, and you wouldn’t want him running your school, would you?

Brubaker is more successful at specifying what he means by “leadership.” He repeats over and over again that leadership is “using your talents to help others identify and use their talents.” He also emphasizes that of all the various shortages afflicting schools—qualified teachers, adequate classroom space, up-to-date textbooks—the shortage of genuine leaders may be the most dire.

As Brubaker describes them, the best leaders exhibit not so much charisma as moral character. “If you aren’t willing to go out on a limb for someone who has been treated unfairly,” a “crusty veteran superintendent” tells him, “you don’t have any right to have the position you have. In fact, this is the difference between a leader and a manager. A real leader is willing to risk doing what is right no matter what the consequences are.”

Despite the importance he attaches to character, Brubaker devotes most of this book to providing educators with tips on how to improve their “presentation of self” in the “creation of educational settings,” terms he appropriates from the works of sociologist Erving Goffman and educational theorist Seymour Sarason, respectively. Brubaker contends that there is a connection between the substantive issues facing educational leaders and the way in which they present themselves to parents, teachers, and students. A principal who comes off to others as, say, arrogant won’t inspire the cooperation or maintain the credibility necessary to bring about school improvement.

There is no doubt that, as Brubaker suggests, educational leaders need good listening, speaking, and writing skills. Nor is he wrong to point out that teacher and administrator preparation programs often neglect these areas. Still, are educators really so socially lame that Brubaker must tell them to speak slowly when leaving voice mail messages?

Brubaker would deny he is advocating what PR folks might call “impression management.” But what else do you call advice on crafting a charming demeanor? Addressing the deep issues of education would seem, in any case, to require more than a nice phone manner or direct eye contact.