Cultivating Leadership at All Levels

Perhaps you’ve already heard the difference between managing and leading. If not, the Harvard Business Review notes:

Management consists of controlling a group or a set of entities to accomplish a goal. Leadership refers to an individual’s ability to influence, motivate, and enable others to contribute toward organizational success. 

There is no mention of where in the hierarchy of an organization a leader emerges, so why do we usually think that a leader needs to be in a role on the top steps of the hierarchy? Schools are organizations with many examples of leaders at lower levels of the hierarchy, like teachers and staff, that demonstrate leadership. I think when we discuss who is a leader, we should consider their ability to influence, motivate, and enable others, as mentioned above. However, due to the normalization of leadership = higher position, many teacher leaders don’t view themselves that way or minimize their ability to rise to positions on the hierarchy of leadership. In this case, those in positions of leadership have a responsibility to take note of and mentor staff who don’t see themselves as leaders or have leadership potential. How can leaders already in positions of power on the hierarchy support those who have the potential but either don’t perceive themselves as having the skills or are fearful of taking on a leadership role or even leading a specific project?

When I was the elementary principal at a private, all-female American curriculum school in Kuwait, my team included teachers from all over the globe and had a variety of degrees from a variety of universities.  It was my responsibility to manage the day-to-day routines as well as to guide change and improvement in teaching and learning. There was no way I could do all that if I didn’t delegate some of my responsibilities to teachers and para-professionals who would benefit from the experience of taking a leadership role in some tasks. Some of the women I tapped on the shoulder asked me how I knew they would be able to lead a task or project. I told them I had observed them in their teaching role and also how they handled their students and worked with their team members. Some were fearful of failure if they led the task and politely told me they were not ready. I respected their decision even if I didn’t agree. Many who took up my challenge applied for positions as head of a department or as vice-principal. Para-professionals I mentored returned to complete their undergraduate degrees or complete a teacher certification and then applied for teaching positions. 

So, what key traits did I notice in my team members that showed me they had leadership potential? 

Here are my top 5:

They are…

  1. Self-motivated 
  2. Long-term thinkers who don’t fear change
  3. Relationship-builders and team players
  4. Empathetic and Compassionate 
  5. Decisive after listening to and considering alternatives

Self-motivation is key to leading. You can’t wait for someone else to come up with an idea or push you forward. You need to wake up in the morning ready for action and be organized enough to make things happen.

Being a forward-thinker means seeing into the future while being grounded in the present and understanding the past. It also means you are able to plan short-term to reach a long-term goal. And finally, it means you aren’t afraid of change because you are planning for it. 

Building healthy professional relationships is also key to effective leadership. Leading isn’t a solo endeavor. It’s a team effort. Little can be accomplished if you don’t have a supportive team around you but building a team takes the right kind of person. It needs a combination of skills such as communication, collaboration, trust, respect, and valuing the potential of human capacity. 

Empathy and compassion are often used interchangeably; however, empathy is important for making connections with others so they feel valued and compassion helps them feel validated.  Empathy means you understand their feelings and compassion means you’re ready to step up and do something to help them resolve a problem. 

Decision-making is an art and a science. The art is knowing when the science you have is enough to make a decision. In simpler terms, gathering all the information and data, delegating tasks to your team members, receiving feedback from your team, then making an informed decision are the art and science of decision-making.

School leaders have a responsibility to cultivate and mentor other school leaders, especially if they want sustainability in programs and systems. I’ve found that the best place to start is with our teachers and staff. 

Want to Learn More?

The Essential Handbook for Highly Effective School Leaders: How school leaders maximize teacher commitment, engagement, performance, and retention by Tim Nolan.

Leaders in Succession: Rotation in International School Administration by Patrick Lee

Posted by: Ilene Winokur, EdD

Dr. Ilene Winokur has lived in Kuwait since 1984 and is a professional development specialist supporting teachers globally, including refugee teachers. Ilene has been active in learning innovation for over 25 years and is passionate about narratives related to belonging. Before retiring in 2019, she was a teacher and administrator at the primary and pre-college levels. Her work has focused on supporting multilingual learners and increasing their success in English-based curricula. As a teacher, she earned her teaching certification in ESL to increase her toolbox of strategies to ensure her students felt included, valued, and seen. As a school leader, Ilene mentored her team members about techniques such as scaffolding and tiered questioning that support language acquisition. Ilene advocates for instilling a sense of belonging in students, which is the subject of her books Journey to Belonging: Pathways to Well-Being and Finding Your Pathway to Belonging in Education.

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