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Whenever two or more people gather, leadership is present. This resulting leadership may be a positive or negative force in the lives of individuals as well as the work of the institution.

Many teachers ignore or overlook this overwhelmingly important leadership law. Others feel that their position and title alone denote to students that they are the source of leadership within a classroom.

In many ways, this kind of thinking can result in some vital management misconceptions, especially if the teacher assumes there is no need for one to establish and maintain his or her position with students. Such teachers are likely to believe that, when all else fails, an order, demand, or directive will cause students to follow their leadership or correct any situation. If these teachers would look more closely, they might see that titles which denote positions of leadership, such as teacher, department head, team leader, principal, or superintendent, can sometimes be secondary and even insignificant in the actual leadership in a classroom or school.

Two Kinds of Leadership

Basically, there are only two kinds of leadership: Appointed and emerging. The appointed leader is the individual who has the legal title, authority, and responsibility to effectively carry out the work of the school. The classroom teacher is a prime example for our discussion here. However, when appointed leaders do not take charge of the responsibilities inherent in their granted positions, leadership will always emerge from the group that the appointed leader should be directing. This is the Law of Ever-Present Leadership. The basic truth of this law is one that every teacher must remember when dealing with students.

The Law of Ever-Present Leadership can result in a loss of appointed leadership which may be temporary or permanent. In truth, whether the loss is permanent or not is determined to a great extent by the emerging leader. If the emerging leader has the desire to accept permanent leadership rather than follow the appointed leader, it is his or hers for the taking. Fortunately, a student may take leadership on one issue and then refuse the leadership on another issue that classmates attempt to impose on him or her. On the other hand, a student may become leader in the classroom, not in title, but in reality. We’ve all seen administrators lose their leadership to a member or members of the teaching staff. And we’ve all seen teachers lose their positions in the classroom to one student. That’s the Law of Ever-Present Leadership revealed.

Negative Leadership Is the Probability

Emerging leadership may be either positive or negative. Sometimes emerging leadership is good. Unfortunately, most often it is not. The reason negative rather than positive leadership most often emerges from a group is twofold.

First, people of equal rank, such as the rest of the faculty or the rest of the class, are very unlikely to “speak out” against each other to defend a “non acting” or absent appointed leader. This is not abnormal behavior. It is simply the common way people react in the presence of peers. A teacher must never discount the force of peer pressures within a class. If one student is telling classmates about “all the mistakes and wrongs” that exist in a particular situation, or “what kids shouldn’t have to do,” or “how incompetent the teacher is,” it is very likely that even those students who usually support the teacher, for instance, would say nothing. They may not join the negative discussion and participate, but neither are they likely to disagree or correct the thinking of a classmate to defend the teacher. True, they may. However, their stance is more likely to be silence. They may be angered. But to speak out in support of the teacher and against a classmate in the presence of peer pressure is the exception rather than the rule. If you think not, you haven’t heard all the talk among students. The same is true of teachers. It is not common for them to defend an administrator in similar circumstances. A teacher should not be angered or disappointed when such events take place. This is simply people reacting in a human way.

Second, negative leadership emerges most often because the students who gain authority within a group—without a corresponding degree of accountable responsibility to some higher authority—are most likely to act and react out of self-interest rather than in the best interest of the class or of those the institution serves. Students are not different from us in this respect. This is exactly what happens in many teachers’ lounge discussions. They end in criticisms approaching insubordination.

Examples of emerging leadership in schools are countless. An emerging leader simply “takes” or is “given” leadership. After gaining the authority and power granted by the group, the emerging leader usually proceeds in the misguided direction of self-interest rather than student and class interest.

In many instances, it is through emerging colleague leadership that teachers begin to accept teacher-centered rather than student-centered attitudes and practices. A negative leader simply has emerged from the group and begins feeding colleagues negative, self-directed, unprofessional thoughts. In the classroom, one student can do the same thing.

They May Mean Well

Don’t be misled; this negative emerging leader may be well-meaning. A student, for instance, truly may not be fully aware of the discord he or she brings. Too, he or she may be “pushed” or “forced” into a leadership role by classmates. The same is true of teachers. I have always wondered, “If this outspoken and misdirected emerging leader were suddenly made principal, would he or she say those same things in the same way to colleagues at the faculty meeting tomorrow?” I think not. Why? Because once one is made an appointed leader, accountable responsibility has been added to authority. This fact changes the entire situation.

Without doubt, the best counteraction to decrease power and effectiveness of negative emerging student leadership is for appointed leaders to meet their leadership responsibilities. Please note that I said “negative emerging leadership,” for we are constantly striving to encourage the emergence of positive student leaders. We could not operate without them. Yet, we give these student leaders authority and responsibility. They remain accountable to us—the appointed leaders. However, the chance of positive emerging leadership developing without positive appointed leadership is slim.

A Powerful Force

A teacher must never ignore or discount emerging student leadership. Its force in the classroom can be overwhelming. A teacher who can accept the Law of Ever-Present Leadership immediately realizes that he or she, as the appointed leader, must make decisions and take action in all situations, discipline included. You can’t sit on your hands and be an accepted or competent appointed leader. Too, a teacher must know that to be an effective disciplinarian, continuous communication with every student is an absolute necessity. In truth, one must realize that being granted a position as an appointed leader is no more than being given an open-ended opportunity to prove that the right appointment was made or was not made. No guarantees come with the appointment.

Respect cannot be granted by appointment or title. One must work continually at earning leadership acknowledgment and respect from students. Certainly, respect is not something that a teacher can demand, force, or insist upon. It must be earned.


None of us who are now teachers were always appointed leaders. Our experience should tell us that leadership acceptance and respect can be achieved best by example as well as by providing tangible evidence of help, direction, and assistance to those we lead. [Tweet this.] Unless we are willing to be an example of good leadership to students by word as well as deed, respect cannot be earned. Remember, I said word and deed. A teacher cannot find leadership success unless he or she actively provides students with the tools and skills they need to find success in the classroom. These tools and skills include more than books, desks, paper, and lesson plans. And students cannot be expected to look only to themselves to find success in the classroom.

Never forget, we all ask the same question of our leaders: “What are they doing for me?” If the answer is “Nothing,” then those being led will look somewhere else for assistance as well as leadership. This is true for administrators and teachers as well as students. A principal looks to the superintendent and says, “What is he or she doing for me personally—to help me be a better principal and find happiness in the process?” Teachers ask the same question about principals and superintendents. Students ask the same question about their teachers. It’s as personal as that. If the answer is “Nothing,” then people look elsewhere for leadership. That’s the effect of the Law of Ever-Present Leadership revealed. That’s why, as teachers, we can never forget this law. If we do, we can lose both our function and our position, and everyone will know it.

Accepting and practicing this law is paramount in discipline situations. Therefore, the Law of Ever-Present Leadership is vital to your professional strategic attitude.

Please Note: This post is excerpted from the book Before You Can Discipline. Also check out the related study guide entry for free!

[Was this article helpful? Consider sharing it with your PLC or whole school! Have questions about implementing this leadership law? Leave a note in the comment section and get answers today!]

Thought for the Week

Simply pulling a strategy “off the shelf” or defaulting to the most recently read article or staff development session topic may not generate the results we seek.

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