Leading By Example to Create a Vision and Success

Strong leaders can be found in public and private school districts all across the country and, as district employees, parents, and students will vouch, are worth their weight in gold. To that end, four highly respected leaders from three different regions share their expertise about the qualities effective school leaders embrace, how to develop those qualities, and the responsibilities that come with leadership.

Leadership Qualities

There are a number of qualities that a leader must possess. Indeed, the list seems overwhelming. Fortunately, some are natural talent, while others can be developed.

1. Be able to understand, articulate, and move forward a vision.
Leaders must look to the future for the sake of the students, then work to prepare students for that future.“Visioning the future of education for our students and staff is hugely important,” says Keith Owen, Ph.D., chief academic officer of Instructional Support and Educational Accountability for Pueblo City Schools in Colorado.“I see a need for that quality because we’re preparing students for something that doesn’t exist — we’re in a time when we don’t know what their future is — and we need to be mindful of that.”

2. Have a real passion for students and education.
“Passion, energy and excitement are necessary,” says Owen. “We try to communicate that daily to our students. We want them to know that education is exciting and this is an exciting time in education.”

Michael (Mike) Deweese, Ed.D., superintendent of Chittenden Central Supervisory Union in Essex Junction, VT, adds that a foundation of leadership is having a passion for your work that is articulated and felt by others is a foundation of leadership. “It’s a constant, really,” he says.

3. Be proactive rather than reactive.
When John Baracy, superintendent of Scottsdale Unified School District in Arizona, first arrived at the Scottsdale district, he was bombarded with questions: What programs are you going to eliminate? What programs are you going to institute? Who are you going to fire? Who are you going to hire? His response was to listen for 100 days, then make a report to the board (based upon what he had heard) about developing a plan to move forward.

“I think listening is important to use as a template,” says Baracy. “I got a great deal of input and, when I gave the report to the board, the audience felt ownership in it. Ownership adds to buy in and makes it easier to move past division.”

Leaders make decisions every day, and being proactive through listening buys time to make the right decision. “I will continue to seek input,” says Baracy. “It’s a fundamental working premise for us.”

4. Possess a mix of leadership skills.
As if being a leader weren’t tough enough, it also requires wearing a number of hats and possessing a plethora of skills. For example, Deweese says that leaders need to be flexible because different situations call for different skills. He adds that loyalty and fidelity to the organization are necessary: “It’s an important covenant.”

Baracy believes superintendents must wear three hats, those of a manager, politician and coach. To be a manager, a superintendent has to have enough knowledge of a variety of moving parts in a school district to handle them well.

“In Scottsdale, for example, one must have skills in curriculum and instruction, legislative skills, and media skills,” says Baracy. “We’re a large district, and the media and other districts often look to us for how things are done. One also needs skills in finance, human relations, and marketing. We’re a mature school district that was declining. Three years ago, we only had 700 students from outside our district. We started marketing to increase our enrollment and, today, we have more than 2,000 children from outside our district.”

The politician hat requires working with many different groups: employee associations, community members and community groups. It also includes working with members of the government, including the legislature and senate, governor’s office, mayor, police chief, and fire chief.

When it comes to wearing a coach’s hat, Baracy notes that this means working with team members to stretch them, yet create a balanced tension so that no one snaps.

5. Promote teamwork and collaboration.
Before teamwork and collaboration can be promoted, a leader must hire well for key positions. “In today’s business world, a complex set of skills and needs are required, and it’s bigger than any one person can present,” says Deweese. “As a result, it’s essential to hire a highly functional team.”

Once the hiring is done, a leader must possess the ability to delegate and trust the work of others. “We need to enable others to do their jobs completely and support them in whatever they need,” says Deweese. “We need to trust their expertise and enable them to be full contributors to the cause, while encouraging and expecting good work from them.”

Teamwork and collaboration fit like pieces of a puzzle with delegating and trusting. “One of our strengths,” says Prince, “is that we’re focused on our vision and mission and have worked toward achieving that with our principals.” For example, she and Deweese look at test results and troubleshoot around those results to close achievement gaps. In doing so, they specifically give appropriate feedback and strive to establish a culture of continuous improvement.

6. Be accountable.
A leader must have high expectations and be accountable for those expectations, all the way down the ladder. “More and more,” says Owen, “we look to hire staff who are willing to take on the accountability piece as a challenge and understand that we have to make a difference in the lives of our students everyday.”

How can a leader develop these qualities?
There are two means by which leaders can actively develop their skills. One is through professional development and the second is through mentoring.

1. Participate in professional development programs.
For leadership qualities that need to be taught, Pueblo City Schools uses professional development. “You have to innately have the passion, energy and excitement for education,” Owens explains, “and you look for that when hiring. After you get the raw material, you work with visioning and other aspects of leadership, which are things that can be taught.”

Specifically, his district teaches responsibility, accountability, and meeting goals. Classes provide time for prereading, development, and reflection. Reflection is continued throughout the year. “We want training to be sustainable,” Owen points out. “We’re training trainers to provide ongoing support for our leaders because we feel that we have to get more in depth with our expectations for core leadership — above and beyond principal training and licensure.”

Baracy echoes Owen in the need to develop skills in young leaders. The need goes above and beyond the usual to explore qualities, skills, and strategies in depth. “Current programs don’t develop the leader in regard to his or her core values or strategies on how to get things done,” he says. “I use the metaphor that I know a lot of individuals who know a lot of stuff, but they don’t know how to get stuff done.”

2. Participate in a mentoring program.
Young leaders can develop their skills through mentoring and the support of administrators. Pueblo City Schools works toward this end. “We try to build that capacity in our own system so there are always people ready to jump into leadership,” Owens says. “Mentoring and ongoing support are important to making sure leaders are successful in their first few years. Without it, things don’t go so well.”

Deweese agrees. “Training can’t stop with professional development,” he points out. “I myself have developed qualities through the use of mentors. The more I’m around other leaders, the more I take away.” He notes that surrounding oneself with other leaders is about more than getting the work done; it’s about challenging one another, refining ideas, and creating and maximizing the spirit of teamwork.

Specifically, his district uses a SMART model, where goals are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Results driven and Time sensitive. “This is one way that’s really concrete in how we achieve our leadership work,” says Prince. “We use it with our teachers. It’s helping with curriculum delivery and assessment.”

What responsibilities come with leadership?
There’s an old saying that, with privilege comes responsibility. Similarly, with leadership comes responsibility. The leaders in this article identify five responsibilities.

1. Take seriously that you’re being entrusted with children.
Public education leaders have been given the public’s trust with their children, dollars and human resources. “We never forget we’ve been given the trust we have, and we take that trust seriously,” says Deweese.

In fact, Chittenden Central Supervisory Union is wired so that continuous improvement is a responsibility. “We’re never there,” Deweese points out. “We’re always striving to take what we have and make it better. It’s a responsibility we all have.”

Owens agrees, noting that, “We’re being entrusted with a special opportunity to help students make a difference with what they want to do with their lives. We take that responsibility seriously every day. And, we take full advantage of that opportunity to make sure every student gets the education needed to be successful in life.”

“We have a responsibility to remember that children only get one childhood,” Deweese acknowledges. “They’re counting on us as the adults in their world to make sure it’s a high-quality experience in which they can grow and thrive, and experience joy and all the good things we should be giving them.”

2. Understand that the buck stops here.
With responsibility comes accountability. “At the end of the day, the buck stops here,” says Baracy. “As a result, I get both more credit and more criticism than I should. But that comes with the territory.”

3. Ensure everyone is working toward the vision.
Once the vision is defined (most likely having something to do with equal and high-quality education for all students), leaders have a responsibility to ensure that everyone in the organization is working toward accomplishing that vision.

No Child Left Behind forces this accountability. Chittenden Central Supervisory Union works to use viable curriculum that has all the qualities of universal access. “I believe all children can learn,” Prince says. “But not all children learn the same. How do we create an opportunity for students to learn differently?”

4. Prepare students for the future.
Technology has changed our world. In addition, it continues to change quickly, and it is difficult for schools to keep up with the changes. But they must in order to prepare students for their futures.

“When we look at future trends,” says Prince, “most of the jobs we’re preparing students for today don’t even exist yet. How do we embrace that and give them what they’re going to need in areas that we don’t even know about yet?”

5. Advocate for public education.
Public school leaders have a responsibility to take on ambassadorial responsibilities. “Public education has its share of critics,” says Deweese. “We need to advocate for public education, students, teachers and parents.”

Deweese acknowledges that serving as an advocate requires some special sensitivities and skill sets. “Folks look to leaders to help them because of the nature and pace of change. Who are better ambassadors than educational leaders? We have to honor that.”

There are those who say the most successful school districts are those that have enough money for operations and programming. Others know that no district ever has enough money, and that it is leaders who are successful at inspiring and encouraging the leadership team, and at taking responsibility for implementing the district’s vision, that make successful districts.