Educational Leadership: Inherited or Learned?

Quote: “Leadership is not a natural trait, something inherited like the color of eyes or hair…Leadership is a skill that can be studied, learned, and perfected by practice.” – The Noncommissioned Officer’s Guide (1962)

Military leadership is learned. It’s not something you are born with, or is inherited. In the US military, for example, leadership is taught…to everyone. The US military sees everyone as a potential leader. No one would seriously doubt the wisdom of that assumption, nor of the practice of developing leaders embedded within that philosophy.

What about educational leadership? Again, let’s return to the definition of what educational leadership is all about: improving student learning outcomes. According to Elmore, educational leadership is the “guidance and direction of instructional improvement”. This definition sets an ambitious agenda for school leaders and for leadership training
programmes. It declares that the purpose of educational leadership is not only (for example) to develop a cohesive culture, have good communication channels with staff and students, and monitor and evaluate instruction—it is to do all these things in a manner that improves teaching and learning. (See Elmore, R. F. (2004). School reform from the inside out: Policy, practice, and performance. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, p. 13.)

With clarity about educational leadership established, we can now take a position on educational leadership. In my 12 years as an educator, I have been privileged to work closely with and observe a number of educational leaders, up front, close, and personal. Some of these people have shared their philosophies and their stories with me, in bits and pieces.

Graduates at University High School in Irvine, California ( Chris McPherson for Newsweek)

Graduates at University High School in Irvine, California ( Chris McPherson for Newsweek)

Others have simply allowed me the opportunity to observe their leadership in action. This is leadership in practice, versus theoretical lessons on leadership. Yet there is a place for both types of learning, as both guide one to establish a personal approach to leadership.

I have observed from my leaders that leadership is a frame of mind, an attitude. Leaders believe they can make a difference. I have not met a single leader, in any setting, who gave me the impression that they thought their efforts were useless, with no impact. This is something that is learned. You are not born thinking that you can make a difference in the world, that destiny can be shaped by individual initiative and effort.

Secondly, I have yet to meet a leader who was not either a reader, a writer, a persuasive speaker, or all three. Leaders are up front, telling the stories that need to be told, making the speeches that need to be made. In sum, educational leaders verbally communicate their vision to those around them.

Leaders read, huge quantities of material. Enter any leaders “office” and you will find literally tons of reading material. Leaders read to stay up to date on their subject area, on topics of interest, and to stay current on the world in which they live. Reading is a source of knowledge, a source of pleasure, and ultimately, a source of power.

Leaders write, huge quantities of materials, without being aware of it even. Leaders write reports, proposals, recommendations, and documentation of events. Leaders write articles, books, stories, speeches, letters, emails, messages, meeting notes, etc. Writing leaves a written record of processes and products, which can be revisited in the future, for any number of purposes.

As we have seen, reading, writing, and speaking are essential parts of leadership. If leadership was a trait you were born with, there would be no need to read widely, to write extensively, or to speak persuasively. Thus, the only conclusion we can arrive at is that educational leaqdership can be learned, just as military leadership is also learned.

Colin Powell & Barack Obama

To conclude, I’ll turn not to an educational leader, but to a retired four-star general and former US Secretary of State, Colin Powell: “Effective leaders are made, not born. They learn from trial and error, and from experience. When something fails, a true leader learns from the experience and puts it behind him. “You don’t get reruns in life.,” he said. “Don’t worry about what happened in the past.”

Powell continued: “Good leaders also must know how to reward those who succeed and know when to retrain, move, or fire ineffective staff.”

About profesorbaker

Thomas Baker is the Past-President of TESOL Chile (2010-2011). He enjoys writing about a wide variety of topics. The source and inspiration for his writing comes from his family.
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