All school year, I've been thinking about leadership. I see and hear about both excellent and poor examples of leadership in schools and organizations around the country. Leadership is a useful topic for teachers to think on, as we are, after all, the leaders of our classrooms. And when comparing like schools, leadership is virtually always a key difference between high- and low-performing school systems.
That statement sounds silly to the sophisticated reader. Isn't it more complicated than that? Don't systems-level differences in schools come from socioeconomics, or teacher preparation patterns, or labor structures? Jim Collins had similar skepticism of the role of leadership in “great” institutions, but when he examined the data, he couldn't escape it: great organizations are great in part because they have certain kinds of leaders.
(Please note: Great leadership alone won't make a school great, but it enables and protects the things that can make a school great, such as excellent, research-informed curriculum, which most schools in the United States currently lack; excellent, focused instruction, which, again, is lacking in most schools; systems for identifying and developing teacher leaders. The point of this article isn't those things — it's the kinds of people who will tend to make those things an enduring and protected and actual priority.)
I'm going to share some characteristics of great leadership that bear thinking on below.
Humility and Discipline
Leaders who make a real and lasting difference are deeply engaged in the discipline of humility. I call it a discipline on purpose: humility is more like a muscle that can be strengthened than it is a feature that is fixed. It comes from the lifting of the weight of that constant inward messaging where we repeat, “It is not about me. I am not the protagonist of the story of my students or of my school.” It's a by-product of self-shrinking acts of service and reflection.
Years ago I wrote on how humility makes us better, saner teachers. I now believe that humble leaders give us better, saner schools, better, saner families, and better, saner countries. We've all seen this play out. Egocentric leaders waste time, energy, and resources — their own and ours.
Boldness and Focus
Critically, the deeply humble leader is not passive or weak. Even as she practices the habit of decentralizing her role in the story, she also fiercely re-centers herself, hour by hour, day by day, on the critical mission on which her organization is built. She vocalizes this and writes about this (weekly leader newsletters are a forgotten lever in most systems, schools, and teams). She argues earnestly and amicably for this Everest's priority at every chance. Confusion, obfuscation, and priority creep are her sworn enemies. Her abiding purpose is to see the advancement of the long-term flourishing of human beings.
Now mind you, there are days when the good leader is as frazzled as the rest of us, his mind mashed with unending task lists, incomprehensible inbox demands, consuming schedules. But he has worked for years to master the discipline of boldly focusing on the work that matters most. And so, commuting home after a hard one, the discipline pays off as he asks himself for the millionth time:
- What are we after?
- What are the most clearly promising means by which we'll get to where we need to go?
- What is the work that matters most?
These first two aspects of good leadership are tightly wound together. Jim Collins found this in his laborious study of outstanding organizations — Level 5 leadership, he called it in Good to Great.
Don't miss the pairing. What we're after is humble-boldness.
There are more things to think on here — things like expertise, action, and radical ownership — but that's all I've got time for today.
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