School Climate & Safety Opinion

Successful Leaders Develop Their Expertise Through Daily Practice

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — April 23, 2017 4 min read
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Leadership, like life, is a journey best taken along with a healthy dose of self-knowledge, social conscience, empathy, compassion, and humility. What is taught and learned in administrative preparation programs are the nuts and bolts: the law, finance, labor relations, supervision, governance, the details of the daily responsibilities. These are all necessary knowledge and skills for the administrative role, but they are not all one needs to know. The successful ones, the ones who have led schools or districts to shared and sustained success, are those leaders we remember and hope to emulate. They are the leaders who understand what is needed in the present while leaning into the future, no matter the moving horizon line. Once we have known a leader who can do that, once we have the model of what a successful leader is, we long for them. We yearn for those leaders who do not disappoint us (Bennis, 2009). These are the leaders we need for our schools, the students who learn in them, and the teachers who teach in them.

Leadership Capacities Become Visible

These abilities, capacities, and knowledge will only grow if identified and nurtured. This applies to student leaders, teacher leaders, building level leaders, district level leaders, the superintendent and, yes, the board. No matter the place in the organization, leadership capacities become visible. Leaders share similar attributes. It is important, when beginning the leadership journey, to have those around us who identify those attributes, who give us that feedback and who support the development of those attributes and encourage us into roles and places where we test ourselves and grow. Many have few words for but an innate sense of who can lead. Nevertheless, there are moments in which some arise and surprise us with a deep and abiding understanding of what leadership is and when it is needed most.

Relationships Matter

Warren Bennis (2009) states, “Leaders are self-directed, but learning and understanding are the keys to self-direction, and it is in our relationships with others that we learn about ourselves” (p. 58-59). That statement is packed with information. Being self-directed, according Bennis requires that leaders be ‘learners’ and suggests we ‘learn’ about ourselves through our relationships. Whether a teacher, beginning administrator, experienced building leader, or district leader, self-direction is essential. Bennis also writes that leaders learn from others, but are not made by others. He refers to this as a paradox. “The self and the other synthesize through self-invention” (p.59).

Leadership Means More Than Nuts and Bolts Knowledge

Strength and knowledge, and a dash of cunning, define leaders in the animal kingdom. But, more is required of human beings as leaders. Bennis identifies the basic ingredients of leadership as guiding vision, passion, integrity, candor, maturity, curiosity and courage (Bennis, p.33-35). These are not nuts and bolts skills. They are personal attributes, rarely if ever taught in preparation programs, or offered in professional development once a leadership career has begun. Yet, all of us know the profound silence in our office after a highly disruptive student incident or tough parent meeting. We know the long drive home after a late and challenging board meeting. Those are the times that invite us into reflective practice. What did we do well and what could have helped more? Where did we get caught in the dynamic so that we couldn’t extricate ourselves or others from it? What must change about ourselves since therapists will tell us that is the only person we can really change? Did you build trust today or reduce it? These are the times when honesty with oneself is required. Without them, we remain frozen at a developmental point when real leaders are continually growing.

Personal Attributes Matter

Management skills fill preparation programs, and their graduates reliably keep schools running. These skills can be taught, can be learned and can be measured. And, compared to the personal attributes needed for 21st century leaders of change, they are relatively easy to acquire. But entering a leadership career, whether as a teacher leader or someone in more formal and traditional leadership ranks, personal attributes matter. Some come naturally and others call for reflection, honesty and humility.

The challenge lies in looking to ourselves for those leadership attributes, questioning our strengths and weaknesses, and preparing ourselves to develop what we need to become successful leaders. In this century, however, in addition to the personal attributes leaders have to engender, we suggest leaders take on some extra demands in these areas:

  • leading change,
  • coalition building,
  • applying technology in reconceived learning environments,
  • being a smart consumer of current research about children,
  • understanding how mental health issues manifest and affect learning, and
  • developing partnerships with business, healthcare, and higher education

To be successful open-hearted, open-minded, leaders who have knowledge about curriculum, can build consensus, can use technology and encourage its use by others, is a visionary, a change agent, is curious, courageous, and trustworthy, takes daily practice. These are not capacities built in traditional preparation programs or a ‘one shot’ professional development offering. These are capacities that are personal as is the journey toward being a remarkably successful leader. Leadership requires the leader to “know thyself”, and, lest any of us forget, developing expertise demands daily practice.

Bennis, W. (2009). On Becoming a Leader. Philadelphia: Basic Books

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Photo by geralt courtesy of Pixabay

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.