School & District Management Opinion

What Is Educational Leadership?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — April 05, 2016 4 min read
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Some believe leaders are born. Whether that is true or not, in our profession, becoming a school leader most often begins in the classroom. Teachers feel the call to make a bigger difference or to fill a different role. They take the first step by entering graduate programs. Those programs, formerly known by the name ‘Educational Administration’, have, over these past years, become ‘Educational Leadership’ programs. But, too often, the difference in the names did not necessarily change the content of the courses. Schools will always need good managers but don’t we all know that they increasingly benefit from educational leaders? That difference is more than just a name.

Knowing how to manage the parts of the organization is important. How to develop a budget, how to handle a disciplinary problem with students and faculty and staff, how to handle legal issues, how to negotiate and oversee contracts, how to deal with unions, schedules, transportation, food services...these are all essential. But they are not enough. To keep the current system functioning well is to become the best 20th century school possible. Leaders will help create the best 21st century schools. Management of the organization is foundationally essential. Stepping from the classroom into a leadership role changes one’s perspective.

How do we define educational leadership? And is it different from other leadership? Joshua Rothman, in his excellent article in the February 29th issue of the NewYorker.com, discusses our cultural fascination with leadership and suggests the emergence of leaders is dependent upon a crisis. He points to two of our presidential candidates, Trump and Sanders, who are trying to present current issues as urgent and crisis laden in order to have us view them as the emergent “strong and electrifying leader.” It is the crisis that makes the leader recognizable to us.

Many of today’s challenges are too complex to yield to the exercise of leadership alone. Even so, we are inclined to see the problems of the present in terms of crises and leaders. “Crises of leadership are the order of the day at the beginning of the twenty-first century,” Elizabeth Samet writes, in the introduction to “Leadership: Essential Writings by Our Greatest Thinkers” (Norton). “If we live in a world of crisis,” she continues, “we also live in a world that romanticizes crisis--that finds in it fodder for an addiction to the twenty-four-hour news cycle, multiple information streams, and constant stimulation” (Rothman).

Based on Rothman’s thesis, the societal fascination with the conclusion that schools are failing (the crisis) offers an opportunity for educators to show up and prove themselves like superheros (leaders). We hunger for leaders to solve our problems, be right or be blamed, and to hold the responsibility for most everything. We want to romanticize them as super-human. Rothman goes on to say:

Elizabeth Samet believes that our growing addiction to the narrative of crisis has gone hand in hand with an increasing veneration of leadership--a veneration that leaves us vulnerable to “the false prophets, the smooth operators, the gangsters, and the demagogues” who say they can save us. She quotes John Adams, who suggested, in a letter to a friend, that there was something both undemocratic and unwise in the lionization of leadership. The country won’t improve, Adams wrote, until the people begin to “consider themselves as the fountain of power.”

Exactly! Today’s schools need leadership to exist throughout the organization. Today’s school leaders know all too well, they cannot lead all on their own.The dependence on leadership at all levels in a changing organization also requires leaders who invest in others and make room for all leadership to emerge. In addition, given the relationship between school leaders and their communities, school leaders know all too well how quickly one can fall from superhero status. Rothman’s stand on this:

... because our desire for a coherent vision of the world is bottomless, our hunger for leadership is insatiable, too. Leaders make the world more sensible, but never sensible enough. Should our leaders keep this in mind? Do we want them to lead with a sense of submerged irony, of wistful self-awareness? When we’re swept up in the romance of leadership, we admire leaders who radiate authenticity and authority; we respect and enjoy our “real” leaders.

In the End
School leaders have roles that provide power and influence but require vulnerability, reflection, and authenticity. At the same time, real leaders respect the ability to manage but do not equate those functions with leadership. Based upon the societal fascination with leadership, and the need for school leaders to demonstrate all of the complex personal attributes we just listed, it only makes sense that programs that prepare teachers to be school leaders must infuse the instruction of management responsibilities with the other leadership responsibilities that are far more personal.

This distinction is not new. Warren Bennis wrote about it years ago in On Becoming a Leader. Every now and then it is good to review his insight and consider where we are, who we are developing and for what functions. It might also be a good time to remember another way he looked at leadership. Competence, virtue and vision must be in perfect balance for a leader to be able to motivate and persuade people to share a vision. Without that balance, Bennis wrote:

Competence or knowledge without virtue and vision, breeds technocrats. Virtue, without vision and knowledge, breeds ideologues. Vision, without virtue and knowledge, breeds demagogues (p. 155).

And so we aspire for balance in competence and virtue and vision. None of the unbalanced options are good for schools.

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

Illustration courtesy of Pixabay

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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.