Teachers, youth advisors, coaches, mentors, close friends, and family members. These are the people who so strongly shape our lives, beginning in our youth. Research shows that a natural mentor — that is, a caring non-parent adult in a child’s life — plays a critical role in early childhood development, most specifically related to academic performance and social‐emotional development.
The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) says that in order to have systemic, sustainable change in education, we must have strong leadership. Research supports that the strength of a school leader is the second-most important school-based factor impacting academic success — with classroom teachers being the most important — the DOE points out. Thus, the educational system needs dedicated leaders that are willing to make a concerted effort to become effective coaches, counselors, and mentors. Those who are entrusted with a role in educational leadership must expand upon their natural skills and abilities and learn diverse leadership styles so each student is understood and cared for uniquely.
What makes a great school leader?
There is not just one definition of educational leadership. Education Week sites four top qualities of high-impact school administrators: considers teachers’ opinions; plans ahead; is empathetic; and develops talent. The Northwest Comprehensive Center specifies — based on their research — five qualities of an effective principal: has more than three years of leadership experience; shares leadership responsibilities; has clear goals; gives ongoing feedback; and is highly supported by their school board.
All of these traits contribute to the success of effective educational leaders. Additional characteristics to consider include:
A great leader makes a difference. Nelson Mandela said, “education is the most powerful lesson which you can use to change the world.” Every day, teachers and administrators have the ability to impact the lives of their students. This is something they carry into adulthood and throughout their lives. Creating a safe place for students to learn and grow is a critical part of their emotional development — if handled correctly, this is their foundation to fighting for changes in the future.
A great leader uses diverse leadership styles. Although all leaders strive for success, the methods to reach those attainable goals differ from leader to leader. Successful leaders must be fluent in diverse leadership styles — this includes being open to utilizing more than one leadership method, depending on the need.
A great leader is a people-person. With exceptional interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence, effective leaders can bring communities together toward one collective vision and focus on the dreams and ambitions of students and their community. Leadership encompasses learning and facilitates growth. Great leaders use human connection to empower students to find their own voice and choose their own path.
A great leader always strives for improvement. While it’s true many of the qualities of an effective leader are achieved naturally by some administrators, leadership is a skill. Just like any other skill that is developed for a job, leadership is a skill that can be learned. This means — similar to learning how to run an annual budget — educational leaders must consistently work to improve their leadership ability.
Effective leadership styles in education
Understanding that school effectiveness is impacted by leadership quality and that educational leadership is something that can be harvested, it’s important to have a clear understanding of effective leadership styles in education. Choosing a leadership style involves an examination of self and environment. You must determine which style is feasible for the leader in place, and that it will best fit the school and result in the best student outcomes. While not an exhaustive list, below is a compilation of leadership styles that are commonly studied and utilized by education professionals.
Focus: Leaders become facilitators of learning.
Constructivist leaders aim to facilitate the educational process stimulating and engaging learners. With limited forced direction, constructivist leadership involves taking into consideration the knowledge that an individual possesses, active listening, and repetition of information.
In this method, students are likely to be in control of their own learning. Constructivist leadership typically utilizes regular assessments, big ideas, and seeks to not only challenge belief systems, but to also value the student’s point of view, and aims to make learning relevant to the individual in their present setting. Practicing this leadership style involves addressing the student as a whole, understanding how the student learns best, and limits the need for large standardized tests by evaluating students more often.
Focus: Purposeful and professional collaboration among leaders and contributors.
Leaders implementing distributed leadership focus on policy, procedure, and practice, as opposed to specific roles and responsibilities of the individual and their position. A shared mindset, interdependent interaction, and the vision of a shared collective that builds towards change are the greater focus in this leadership style. Whereas traditional leadership flows towards seniority, distributed leaders concentrate efforts on the expertise of its chosen leaders. By creating plentiful opportunities for all participants to have the opportunity to take on leadership roles, distributed leadership fosters a positive relationship within the entire educational entity. This collaborative effort is strengthened by high levels of trust, transparency, and mutual respect. There is a direct positive relationship between distributed leadership, an organization’s improvement, and its overall student achievement.
The distributed accountability amongst involved personalities provides aspects of collaborative teamwork and facilitates a space where an interdependent working environment is seen as the norm. This collective influence enhances collective pursuits. By fostering a purposeful and potential-seeking school community, distributed leaders create an encouraging, effective environment.
Focus: Quid pro quo between leaders and subordinates.
Transactional leadership involves a give-and-take relationship between leaders and subordinates and relies on a defined system of setting expectations and providing a reward or punishment following the outcome. This structure of leadership serves to maintain existing policies, stabilize the status quo, and focus on rewards and punishments based on performance.
While transactional leadership doesn’t exhibit the characteristics of other leadership styles that seek to solve fundamental problems, it’s important for transactional leadership to be achieved prior to pushing for change in some situations. Depending on the timing and circumstances, a brand new educational leader may initially be brought on to stabilize a school’s day-to-day routine prior to implementing changes for the sake of improvement.
Focus: Leaders that encourage participation from all.
Invitational leaders embrace a systemic approach to education and work to provide strategies that make schools more inviting for all who work and learn there. Facilitating opportunities for teachers to integrate theories, research, and practice in both creative and ethical ways, invitational leaders create a positive climate for students to strive for and experience success. Believing strongly that the climate and culture of the educational space has a direct effect on student achievement, invitational leaders seek positive change by addressing and potentially overhauling the entire school environment.
Invitational leaders accept a concept of mutual commitment to a larger vision. Knowing that morals, ethics, and shared goals are crucial to development, invitational leaders inspire their colleagues, staff, and students to not only realize their potential, but also attempt to surpass it. This mindset empowers those involved to encourage cooperation, value all members of the community, invite continued development, and unlock often undiscovered potential in students, faculty, and staff. These leaders genuinely believe that the extraordinary effort involved in this crusade doesn’t call attention to the process or the effort; the only thing that is seen is the fluidity, excitement, fruits of labor, and magic that follows.
Focus: Leaders are inspired by the feelings and motivations of followers.
Emotional leadership — a leadership style used in education to garner knowledge from the emotions of students — requires a high level of emotional intelligence from the leader. Emotional leaders seek to motivate followers, create an inclusive community, and showcase a sense of moral purpose. Practitioners are deeply concerned with the general feelings of others, understand the power of emotions, and put their weight behind the ability of emotions to play a part in both personal choices and development.
Through charismatic and thoughtful practices, these leaders utilize shared feelings to foster shared cooperation among students, faculty, and staff. Success in this leadership style of education focuses on understanding emotional intelligence and utilizing those strengths to better the community at large.
Focus: Visionary leaders that are robustly action oriented.
Leaders following this process specialize in providing a detailed framework and guidelines towards a clear and concise goal. Strategic leaders put their energy into challenging the status quo, facilitating reflection, and providing evidence in order to solicit the ideas for change. They tend to utilize their ability to make crucial decisions at significant moments as a grounding force behind their methods.
Focusing on the belief that an educational setting should constantly be challenging its students and fostering creativity, strategic leaders aim to take institutions from a meandering along attitude to one that seeks to encourage dynamic change-makers.
Focus: Leaders focus on the counseling, empowerment, and trust aspect of leadership.
Servant leadership focuses most on the moral attitudes and mindset of serving. In a meek and unassuming manner, servant leaders focus little on their own efforts and most on the result of the service. Servant leaders prioritize the needs of others, demonstrate intense compassion, and places focus on healing.
Embracing active listening, empathy, a shared voice, growth of community, and a strong, internal desire to make a difference, servant leaders aim to enrich lives, build a better world, and enhance the organizations and communities of which they’re connected to. These leaders play a significant role in the heart, mind, and soul of an entire community.
Focus: Leaders challenge the status quo by sharing a deep sense of purpose.
Transformational leadership engages in empowerment by means of motivation, thoughtful action, and ethical consciousness. Instilling a mindset of awareness and implementing lasting changes in institutions is a core facet of this leadership style. By imploring trust and shared values based on purpose, transformational leadership aims to increase the focus, values, and awareness of its participants. Student satisfaction increases greatly under this type of leadership.
Transformational leaders are not intimidated by change. They are willing to take risks, change long-standing policies, and motivate followers to aim towards and soar past their utmost potential. With trust, openness, respect, and an engaging commitment to the collective unit as a whole, these agents of change lead with vision and confidence, thereby creating opportunities for all to engage in the leadership process. Institutions utilizing transformational leadership result in increased intellectual stimulation, positive experiences, and a collective mindset.
Channel your strengths to find your voice
Members of the educational community have the capacity to activate change and form a positive impact on the lives of students. Armed with desire, authenticity, and compassion, you have what it takes to become a successful educational leader. With the right educational leadership resources and a strong work ethic, you can expand upon your natural ability and master the skills needed to lift communities, engage learners, and elevate discourse.
Learn to be a leader with an MA in Educational Leadership
Mills College — now offering an online MA in Educational Leadership — is a place for aspiring educational leaders to cultivate their desire to change the world. Our online program allows you to advance your career while continuing to work within the ever-changing educational space. At Mills, we believe in a principled practice that creates socially conscious students who contribute to the community and create opportunities for all learners.
We can help you become the leader you’ve aspired to be. If you’re ready to take the leap, we want to be a part of your flight. Join us and shape the world through education.
Learn more about the online MA in Educational Leadership at Mills College.