Education Opinion

The Leader Must Lead

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — July 22, 2014 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

These turbulent times offer invitation. Leaders can seize the moment and lead. Many others want someone to do that. Within the public there is a growing sentiment that educators are overpaid workers whose ranks are filled with incompetents who enjoy unprecedented job security, over-test children and fail to educate our youth successfully. Within education, there are those who believe teachers are underpaid, under inordinate pressure, challenged to do more with less, and facing increasingly complex students needs every day. Limits have been placed on the ability for schools to raise money. Yet, there exist communities who love their schools, support them wholeheartedly, and show it by respecting the faculty and leaders. There are districts in which the shift into the 21st century has begun and a new design is unfolding. What makes the difference? The leader.

The Leader Makes the Difference
That is not to say that a leader single handedly makes the whole difference. But then, maybe we are...in this way. In order for our schools to shed the hardened structure in which they have existed, and create a dynamic, multi-dimensional, adaptive system prepared to move into an ever emerging future, leaders must be capable of bringing groups of people together, allowing them to see beyond the moment into an entirely new model. The good news is that bringing people together invokes a natural phenomenon in our natures. In his book, The Hidden Brain, Shankar Vedantam, describes

...the desire to arrive at a shared understanding of what is happening is an extremely powerful drive of the hidden brain in situations of grave threat. An alarm is distressing; the consensus of the group is comforting. Like many biases of the hidden brain, this one works well much of the time. Sticking with the group in our evolutionary history usually offered safety (p. 127).

What we have all seen of late is the negative application of this concept. Feeling diminished by public opinion and struggling under pressures that have arrived “from away”, the alarm has sounded and we are distressed. Without the wisdom of the leader, “the consensus of the group is comforting” so together groups form in response and together they hunker down, in the comfort of the group. This group is not prepared to move forward. Rather, they are clinging to the past, and to each other. There is no way to move people to create schools that are responsive to our times and the future without the leader possessing some essential personal qualities that call for a consensus group, one prepared to bravely move forward.

Leadership Qualities Are Personal
In order to lead in education, there are steps most go through in education, certification, and a job ladder. In almost no place along the way is there opportunity for questioning who we are and how we lead. Management is key and manage we do. The capacity to envision the schools we need, the ability to inspire groups of people, the talent to bring different opinions to the table in respectful dialogue, knowing how to take charge, not take control, being trusted and possessing integrity are all personal qualities. "...the same ability to inspire and persuade through empathy and trust can be and should be present in all organizations” (Bennis, p. 153). These six descriptors are attributes, not skills, and are not easily taught or learned.

  • envision the schools we need
  • inspire groups of people
  • talent to bring different opinions to the table in respectful conversation, knowing how to take charge, not take control,
  • trusted and seen as having integrity

How do we develop the capacity to envision, inspire, create, become trusted and have integrity in our work? These are personal qualities that we alone can develop within ourselves. Pretending that we have these qualities undermines all our efforts, as most people have an inner sense to determine what is authentic. Finding the space and direction in this personal journey is individual and somewhat private. We have developed a pattern of working hard and then enjoying vacation time to refuel. Like a pitcher becoming filled and then pouring out slowly over the course of the year, we renew by resting and playing and empty as we work. The pitcher may not be the proper vessel. The pattern of filling and emptying no longer sustains us in our work. Each of us needs to find the place along our leadership path where we can find the space and the guidance to develop wisdom and other personal qualities that allows us to shift, over and over again, from management to leadership. It is not an easy path to take, but an essential one. There are no guarantees, and there are plenty of obstacles and challenges. From Parker Palmer’s introduction in Leading From Within,

...once a person has consciously embraced his or her leadership role and embarked on an inner journey to stay in touch with the soul’s imperatives, life can and usually does get challenging. Many well-intended leaders have been done in by the foes of the good, the true, and the soulful: by institutions that seek survival over service; by the machinations of people who value personal privilege over the common good; by a stream of individualism that resists leadership of any sort; the by sheer grind of the leader’s work, pushing boulders uphill only to find them rolling back down, sometimes over the pusher (p.xxxiv).

Our Leadership Calling
Our calling is to shepherd children through their growing years, to develop their minds and support appropriate social behaviors. Our calling trumps our fears of being rolled over by the boulder and cycles of filling and emptying. As schools are calling for change, they are calling for courageous leadership and that demands an inward leadership journey. Perhaps this summer could serve as a time for reflection. Deeply knowing who we have become and how we lead is required to become those who can truly lead rather than diligently respond. After all, we call ourselves leaders. And, schools surely need them now.

Bennis, Warren (2009) On Becoming a Leader. Philadelphia: Basic Books
Intrator, Sam M., Scribner, Megan (2007). Leading from within: Poetry That Sustains the Courage to Lead. San Francisco: Jossey Bass
Vedantam, Shankar (2010). The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives. New York: Spiegel & Grau

Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.