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Even the greatest leaders have some things to learn

By September 24, 2020No Comments

Schools everywhere are navigating uncharted waters as they confront the unprecedented challenge of delivering learning in a global pandemic—developing protocols for virus tracking and school closures, inventing new ways of teaching and learning, and supporting the well-being of students and staff alike. So, what should leadership look like during times of such uncertainty and change?

In the movies and real life, you’ve likely seen leaders play different roles to guide teams through tough challenges and achieve success. We’ve all seen, for example

  • visionaries who challenge the status quo, see possibilities where others see only limitations, and bring others to a shared vision that helps them achieve what once seemed impossible
  • connectors with a knack for bringing people together, using emotional intelligence and people skills to build camaraderie, personal trust, and shared moral purpose across a team
  • learners whose infectious curiosity, thirst for knowledge, and incessant questions help them spot emerging problems, dissect challenges, and focus everyone on the right work
  • directors whose relentless drive for excellence raises the bar for everyone, creating a culture of discipline and shared accountability

So, which kind of leader is most effective in a school? And which role is most needed now?

All of the above.

Essentially, that’s what we discovered in a meta-analysis of research on school leaders, which correlated thousands of teacher perceptions of their leaders with school performance. It identified 21 leadership responsibilities that were all strongly linked to student achievement. As it turns out, the 21 responsibilities can be loosely mapped onto these four roles for leaders (with some arguably supporting multiple roles), as shown in following table. (Brief descriptors of each responsibility are provided with labels in parentheses.)

Operating from a strong sense of moral purpose (ideals & beliefs)Fostering cohesion, trust & cooperation among staff (community)Understanding & guiding effective teaching practices (knowledge of teaching & learning)Creating & keeping everyone focused on clear goals (focus)
Inspiring & leading new innovations (optimizer)Anticipating social undercurrents among staff (situational awareness)Ensuring staff engage in continuous learning about research & best practices
(intellectual stimulation)
Monitoring practices & progress toward goals (monitor & evaluate)
Actively challenging the status quo (change agent)Engaging in quality interactions with teachers & students (visibility)Seeking teacher insights & input for key decisions & policies (input)Establishing structures & routines to achieve goals (structures & routines)
Balancing directive & nondirective leadership to encourage dissent & innovation (adaptability)Demonstrating awareness of staff personal needs (relationships)Aligning professional learning with teacher needs (resources)Protecting teachers from distractions so they can focus on teaching & learning (protects)
Advocating for the school with parents, the community & district staff (outreach)Communicating effectively & consistently with teachers & families (communication)Helping teachers improve teaching & learning (involvement in teaching & learning)Celebrating school success & acknowledging failures (affirmation)
Rewarding individuals on the basis of performance (celebrates)

Bear in mind all 21 responsibilities are positively linked to student achievement in the study. In other words, when teachers rated principals high in any of them, school performance was higher; and when teachers rated their principals low in them, school performance was lower.

This suggests school leaders generally must play all four roles at once—they must be balanced leaders. A school with a visionary leader who cannot turn vision into action as a director will struggle as much as a school with a director who barks orders but fails to foster a positive culture as a connector.

In reality, few leaders are naturally disposed to playing all four roles equally well. A big-picture visionary, for example, may brush over details, while a cerebral learner may lack people skills. Similarly, a team-building connector may be reluctant to shake up their teams by pushing them beyond their comfort zones.

I’ve found most leaders I work with can quickly size up which roles come naturally to them and which are opportunities for professional growth. So, if you realize you’re a natural-born director yet not so great at the vision thing (or vice versa), don’t beat yourself up. Instead, remember two things.

  • First, the responsibilities that comprise each role are behaviors, not personality traits. At first, you may need to lean into some roles more than others by consciously focusing on exhibiting key behaviors with more frequency or consistency; nonetheless, you can learn and get better at them.
  • Second, you’re not alone: Few leaders are naturally gifted in all four roles. Nonetheless, you likely have other members of your leadership team who can help you balance your leadership. Across your leadership team, you likely have some creative visionaries, people-oriented connectors, introspective learners, and task-oriented directors. So, instead of shouldering the entire burden of balanced leadership, you can lean on others.

When you do that, you’ll be able to help your schools navigate these difficult waters by offering a compelling vision for how you might deliver even better learning for students, maintaining a strong, positive culture strong where people are connected to one another, ensuring everyone has opportunities to learn together and from one another, and providing them with a clear sense of direction and steps toward success.

To learn more about McREL’s Balanced Leadership professional learning and coaching services, please contact us at 800.858.6830 or

Bryan Goodwin is the president and CEO of McREL International. A former high school teacher and college instructor, he is the author/coauthor of Learning That SticksBuilding a Curious School, and Tools for Igniting Curiosity: Classroom-Ready Techniques for Increasing Engagement and Inspiring the Love of Learning, among other publications.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.