Leaders in Education: Five Essential Characteristics

Power and title does not a leader make.  By having the power as ‘supervisor’ or boss does not automatically place you on a pedestal as a leader.  Leaders motivate their followers to set high, attainable standards that result in successful product outcomes.  In education we have higher roles within school districts that require people with leadership skills.  These roles must be filled with competent, confident people that understand true effectiveness of being a leader, not just a warm body filling a supervisory position.  In my time as a professional educator, I have had the opportunity to work under a few effective leaders.  I have outlined for you what I believe to be the five most important characteristics of leadership in education.

  1. Understanding Self
  2. Understanding Human Nature
  3. Communication
  4. Clear, Focused Judgment
  5. Believe in People

Our ‘business’ of education requires that we are all ‘people’ people.  Each and every day we are developing, maintaining, and enriching relationships with people.  Building relationships with peers, parents, students, teachers, maintenance staff, clerical staff, and administrators are a part of every day business for educators.

UNDERSTANDING SELF:

Effective leaders have an honest understanding of who they are and what they represent.  Knowing strengths and weaknesses of self helps leaders model methods in which they utilize their strengths and continually work to build their weaknesses. Good leaders share their strengths with their followers and they seek input and support from their followers by acknowledging their weaknesses.  Acknowledging that help is needed is not a weakness, in fact teachers I know appreciate when leaders admit they might not have all the answers.

Good leaders seek responsibility and take responsibility. I am sure you have much more respect for your leaders when they are not ‘passing the buck’, when they actually will take responsibility.  This action sets a great example for the followers.  Effective leaders set the example for work ethic, dedication, success, and failure to all of their followers.  In fact, followers truly will determine the effectiveness of leaders.

UNDERSTANDING HUMAN NATURE:

Effective leaders must have a fundamental understanding of human nature.  I believe that my administrators must be teachers of teachers…a daunting task when you think about all of the passionate teachers you work with each and every day. Education leaders understand the needs, emotions, motivations, strengths, and weaknesses of their followers, namely, their entire building staff.  Just as teachers work each and every day in their classrooms to grasp a comprehensive understanding of their students, so too do leaders in education regarding their followers, staff members.

Understanding human nature is not an easy task.  Every teacher, like every student, has a variety of needs depending upon the day and a kaleidoscope of emotions.  I believe it is misguided practice to ignore needs and emotions. Even worse, I believe it is arguably negligible to disassociate with followers by claiming, “It’s that time of year,” or “Mr. Moody must not have taken his meds today.”  All teachers are intrinsically motivated to do their best each and every day for their students.  A simple, genuine acknowledgment of teacher’s efforts by their leaders goes a long way to  building rapport, respect, and responsibility with followers.

COMMUNICATION:

THE most important trait of a leader is how effective that leader is in two-way communication.  The receiver of the communication must clearly understand the exact information the sender is transmitting.  Communication involves both verbal and non-verbal transmissions.  Leaders communicating effectively get the same message to all of their followers…there is no room for interpretation, gossip, or conjecture. When communicating effectively, leaders make consistent eye-contact and maintain a body posture that appears to be open to the message from the followers.  Messages can become convoluted when the sender is giving different messages regarding the same topic to a variety of receivers. This only breeds discontent and distrust.  As teachers, we all need to be trained as a team and communicated with as a team; we are working together to create opportunities for our students to be successful.

Communication fails when barriers are placed in the context of the message.  When the sender of the message is frequently perceived as being self-serving for self-preservation purposes the message will fall upon deaf ears.  Another barrier that might prevent effective communication might be a gap in background or bias.  For instance, if an educational leader who has never had experience working as a classroom teacher makes suggestions regarding classroom management or teaching methods, there may be limitations in effective communication.  However, this type of educational leader could provide great insight on understanding human nature.  Good leaders understand how to effectively communicate with their followers, verbally and non-verbally.

CLEAR, FOCUSED JUDGMENT:

The best leaders that I have worked with and for understood when to take the best possible course of action to improve the potential success of their followers.  These leaders effectively evaluated the situation, weighing needs, emotions, and motivation to get a feel for when to approach a teacher that needed more guidance and nurturing to be more effective.  Furthermore, these effective leaders knew when certain teachers needed a genuine ‘pat on the back’ or needed to be recognized for a job well done.

Leaders in education must have a clear, focused vision of success and have the capability to communicate that vision with the teachers that are in the trenches each and every day.  Without a consistent vision and without appropriate, effective communication a leadership crisis is the result. Teachers begin to do their own things, hiding in their rooms because of the lack of trust that develops between leader and follower.  A leader that understand when, where, and how to take action will be trusted.

BELIEVE IN PEOPLE:

Leaders that are true visionaries and communicate authentically will have followers take action toward that vision, own that vision,  and personify success.  More people will be smiling, enjoying their work.  It motivates me each and every day when my colleagues are in a good place within their work environment.  Teachers that believe in the vision of the administration are positive and supportive of each other resulting in outstanding, authentic learning for our students.

Furthermore, when administrators believe in their staff and students in builds an overwhelming environment of productivity and success.  Teachers are empowered to take risks, knowing that they will consistently be supported.  More teachers will participate in the action plan to meet the vision of the leaders when they trust in the process of leadership.  Moreover, teachers will feel confident in sharing information with other teachers and leaders when they know that their leaders and peers believe in them.  A teaching staff that gets to the point of trusting and sharing can then begin to make decisions as a team, a collaborative effort, to make the school the best possible place for our students.

I believe that leaders are not born, they are made.  Leaders are those that truly understand themselves and understand the various elements of human nature.  Communication is the most telling trait of an effective leader; if a leader can empower followers to clearly understand the message, production and success are the result.  People that are in leadership roles must personify the five characteristics outlined in this post.  Power, money, and title does not a leader make.  Remember, the effectiveness of a leader will be determined by the followers.

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About jsteltz

Proud husband and father of four; HS English/LA Teacher; Author - Beyond the Scoreboard and A Sacred Promise
This entry was posted in #edchat, Education, Education Administration, Educational Leadership, students, Teaching and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Leaders in Education: Five Essential Characteristics

  1. Love that “understanding self” is first. Without introspection, you can’t be a good leader or a good educator.

    • jsteltz says:

      Eileen-Thanks for reading and acknowledging the importance of understanding self. The best teachers and leaders I know are constantly critiquing and tweeking what they teach, how they teach, and why they teach.

      I appreciate your thoughts.

  2. Mark Strickler says:

    John,
    I just discovered your blog…read them all. As for this posting, one of the issues that has come to the forefront among my colleague discussion group, comprised of administrators and teachers, is the lack of confidence, or the insecurity, of young administrators who are lured to salaries beyond the classroom without sufficient and effective classroom teaching experience. Your five essential characteristics mirror the basis that I used as impetus for my doctoral research in moral and ethical leadership. An interesting condition that prevents schools from reaching the instructional successes that their teachers are capable of providing is the lack of competent central office leadership that possesses those same set of five essential characteristics. An old adage, “screw up and move up”, unfortunately, but accurately, describes many school division pathways to positions that demand talented leaders, but are filled instead by minimally prepared people that satisfy a category requirement, ie three years in classroom while completing an MA/Med to move to administration in the fourth year. The most valuable reading I have done on educational leadership has been the work of the late Dr. Donald Willower. He describes teaching and the leading of teachers as the most moral of all professions; even more moral is the selection, cultivation, and encouragement of teachers to become master teachers. The present use of the term ‘teacher accountability’ as the pivotal impetus for fixing education is actually manifested in my former school system as justification to misuse a new observation/supervision protocol for the purpose of subjugating teachers who disagree with inexperienced administrators. The primary communication that those teachers hear is not one of encouragement but of suppression.
    I look forward to more of your insights.

    • jsteltz says:

      Mark- I appreciate you taking the time to read and respond on this blog. Your honesty is refreshing. Not everyone can be a leader; I believe it’s important for those that are in leadership positions to understand their limitations. Teacher accountability is an interesting buzz. Many teachers wonder why we are never hearing about administrative accountability. I love what I do in the classroom and I believe I am an effective teacher…most of the time :) I don’t pretend, either, to have the desire to be an administrator. I just know that some understand their role much better than others. In any case, education must be a calloboration of teachers, students, parents, and administrators who all understand the necessity of honest communication.

      Thanks so much for your post…you have added much value to this topic!!

  3. Abdullah Khan says:

    Nice You have given a new touch to the definition of teacher leader.

  4. Pingback: Five Traits of a Good Educational Leader | Concordia Online

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