At least in part, our perceptions of what makes a good educational leader have been formed by the individuals whose leadership we experienced and the context within which our experience played out. Most of us can point to educational leaders we respected and willingly followed. We might also point to leaders in which we were disappointed. Yet, our recollections and perceptions are not always fully informed and accurate. In fact, we can hold images that are not realistic and have expectations that are not attainable.
Of course, each leader has their own personality. They have a unique combination of skills, experiences, approaches, and strategies. As is true with all leaders, they are not perfect. However, it can be tempting to hold educational leaders to standards that may not be reasonable or even useful. Let’s consider six aspects of educational leadership where expectations may be off and have become myths about good leaders and how they lead.
Myth #1: Good educational leaders are experts in every aspect of the curriculum.
Fact: Leaders need to understand learning and how it can be stimulated, nurtured, and supported. Specific activities, strategies, and approaches may vary across the school curriculum, but learning is a universal process to be constantly protected and relentlessly improved. Advocating, coaching, and supporting are important leadership contributions in any context and content area.
Myth #2: Good educational leaders must be good public speakers.
Fact: Leaders must be able to communicate effectively. They need to be clear. Their messages need to be precise. They need to avoid false promises and exaggeration. However, application of these skills does not necessarily mean that leaders must be gifted orators. In fact, listening is often a more valuable skill for the crucial leadership tasks of communicating respect and building trust than eloquence.
Myth #3: Good educational leaders do not make mistakes.
Fact: Good leaders are smart risk takers but risks often involve engaging unknown factors and yet-to-be experienced challenges. Despite good planning and careful strategy, initiatives do not always work out as envisioned. Many of our country’s greatest leaders failed repeatedly before their leadership was recognized and success came to them. More important than avoiding mistakes is recognizing problems early, admitting reality, learning, and adjusting in response to what has happened and applying what has been learned.
Myth #4: Good educational leaders tell people exactly what they are to do.
Fact: Good leaders appreciate the skills, experience, and judgment of people on their team. Effective leaders are clear about the vision and goals involved, are present to provide support and focus on efforts and actions that result in progress. To the extent practical, the specific action steps in which team members engage are left to their discretion, if they are aligned with shared goals and desired outcomes.
Myth #5: Good educational leaders are not followers.
Fact: Good leaders know when to allow others to lead and provide support and coaching as needed. One of the most important tasks of leaders is to develop other leaders. Often, the best way to develop leadership is to give people an opportunity to lead.
Myth #6: Good educational leaders do not ask for advice and assistance.
Fact: Good leaders are willing to admit when they do not have all the answers and may be uncertain about the best course of action. Their willingness to be vulnerable often makes it safe for others to offer needed advice, perspective, and expertise. Success is more likely when everyone is focused on and contributing to success.
Educational leadership is a crucial dimension of our educational system. We need skilled, committed, effective leaders. Leading in education has never been more challenging than today. We must hold leaders to high standards, but we need to avoid burdening them with mythical expectations that make leading an impossible task.