Leadership comes in a variety of sizes and shapes and there are many attributes that can make a true leader. The main attributes that come to mind include an appropriate and wide/oriented long term vision, planning, follow through, modeling and giving of feedback, the ability to listen through a culture of trust, creating a culture of innovation, and the ability to inspire. This is a long list of attributes, and it is likely that not all leaders will have all of these attributes present to the fullest extent. However, it is essential for an organizational leader to have some combination of them.
Wide/Oriented Long Term Vision
A good leader needs to have a broad and long term vision for where an organization is headed. This includes broad goals, which can eventually be broken down into a short term benchmarks to measure successes in getting there. In the world of education, the overarching goal would be maximizing student achievement. However, a leader must have a solid definition of what student achievement is, a philosophy, a vision. Is student achievement increases in standardized tests scores, or something broader? How do we define success outside of our school environment? Once we define that success, how do we get there? If leaders define success in a narrow way, for instance, increases in achievement on such and such a measure, and design a plan to meet that objective, your vision may be fulfilled, but you may miss the broader consequences of meeting that vision. If your vision is defined in a broad way (e.g. identifying what makes a successful graduate in college or life, and then working backwards to create an environment where those attributes and skills can be highlighted), this would constitute a wider scope approach, which likely will have a significant effect on the overall culture and structure of an organization, and thus student’s lives.
No vision comes across in an organized and effective manner without a plan. The amount of time spent planning for a major shift in practice is directly related to how fluidly the change integrates itself into the organizational structure, and how successful the plan ultimately will be. Planning involves first, finding a model of success if one exists; if one does not exist, finding experts in a field to organize thought around the closest existing models. Planning takes time, for reflection, to anticipate potential difficulties, to identify key stakeholders, to work on organizational investment in the plan, for training, and for implementation. It also is helpful to have written guides and policies for teachers to turn to when there are questions about a new procedure. If a leader does not invest time in a planning process, organizational chaos can result, as there are communication lapses, errors or complete lack of implementation, a lack of inspiration and investment from staff, and then, thus a general lack of organizational orientation towards the ultimate vision. With wide and oriented long term vision, should come significant long-term planning.
Teachers and staff in a school need consistency and to know what to expect. If a leader plans and communicates the implementation of their vision effectively, there needs to be appropriate follow through. This means that everyone in the organization has to be invested and on board, and the leader needs to make sure this happens. Teachers, and ancillary staff thrive on consistency, and the knowledge that everyone in the school or organization is on the same page. A leader should make sure they are actively involved in the training and implementation stages of a plan, and be able to make sure that the plan is followed through on in an effective manner.
Modeling and giving of feedback
Once a vision is outlined, and a plan put in place, teachers are trained and the plan implemented, a good leader should be actively observing teachers and staff in action. In schools, this means that a principal should be out in classrooms as much as possible, observing teachers, and offering feedback of their own. In addition to feedback, the modeling of what is expected is essential as well. Leaders should be visible, present in a way that is not meant to be intimidating, but in a way where there is a culture of learning at all times. If a supervisor waits one time a year to visit a teacher and develop an evaluation based on that observation, the teacher will make sure they are working on their best lesson and the visit will seem mainly judgmental in nature. However, if there is a culture of trust, and feedback is given as a device to inspire and improve, and it is expected and happens often, there will be much more value in the classroom visit.
Ability to Listen / Culture of Trust
A good leader should be able to listen to their employees, who are on the ground floor every day, regarding what is going well, and what avenues may need to be tweaked, re-adjusted or outright abandoned if not successful. A good leader should be able to receive feedback in a non-defensive way. It is not helpful to surround yourself as a leader in a groupthink situation, where everyone is telling you what you are doing is correct. If there is a culture of fear, and no honest feedback can be provided, the leader may be receiving very inaccurate information regarding what is actually happening. If a leader does not listen to feedback or even seek out advice from others who may have a different approach, they will never get a broad view of a problem or be able to figure out new approaches about how to solve one. Thus, in order to be a good listener, and to take feedback, the leader must instill a culture of trust to make sure that this is possible within the organization. In this way, the leader can then, seemingly instinctively, almost be able to detect the needs of the organization.
Creating time for Risk Taking and Innovation
Good leaders hopefully have hired staff that have the qualities of risk taking and innovation. If the goals are broad enough for a teacher to implement, there should be room to maneuver in many ways to achieve these goals. A culture of trust should be created where a teacher feels that they can use their talents in specialized ways to come up with a creative plan of keeping students engaged. If the long term goal of a school district is developing higher level thinking skills and creativity in students, a teacher should have the ability to design and implement lesson plans that are innovative and creative themselves. Thus, a culture of innovation, creativity and risk-taking is modeled for the students. Teachers hopefully should be willing to take risks and try new things to expand their and their student’s horizons. In order for this to happen, however, a leader must create an environment where this is not only safe to do, but is encouraged.
Ability to Inspire
Ultimately a good leader has the ability to inspire their staff. They have the ability to clearly articulate their vision and get everyone excited and on board with it. They have created a culture of trust, innovation and a lack of fear, where teachers can experiment and innovate to find new creative ways of fostering student success. There is broad communication across the board, where there is a culture of sharing and collaboration surrounding the broad goals of student achievement. Modelling and feedback is expected, encouraged and shared, and everyone learns from each other, but is focused on the big picture. When there is a good leader, you would go to battle for that individual, taking their vision and moving forward, bringing everyone along with you. The best leaders inspire in this way, and make an organization a proud place to work.