|"Global Perspective on School Leadership." By M. Donald Thomas and William L. Bainbridge. Educational Research. January 2001.|
M. Donald Thomas and
William L. Bainbridge
"A leader is one who, out of madness or goodness, volunteers to take on the woe of a people. There are few so foolish; hence the erratic quality of leadership in the world."
Educational leadership can be madness or it can make a contribution to improving our schools. It can be a frantic effort to fix everything or it can be concentration on a few important items. It can be a futile exercise of power or it can empower individuals to help themselves. In the face of dramatic social change, a troubled sea of governance conflict, and excessive demands being made on schools, it can be said that one who aspires to educational leadership must either be mad or a supreme egotist. The need for educational leaders is an urgent worldwide condition; and fortunately there are some so foolish as to "to take on the woe of a people."
A. Complexities of Educational Leadership
Educational leadership can be understood by a study of leadership
literature. Such a study will also help us to understand the complex nature
In this world, the history of educational leadership will never be
complete. There will always be a final chapter to be written. Nevertheless,
there is general agreement that understanding leadership is extremely
complex. Simple models (events make the man, charisma, a man for all
seasons, the great man theory, etc.) do not adequately explain the individual
or the character of leadership. Leadership must be examined holistically and
in context with history. It should not, however, be examined in isolation
from the organizations, forces and events that surround it. Leadership has a
setting, a historical framework, a wholeness of meaning, and a diversity of
One theory suggests that social evolution requires three forms of
leadership; the formation of ideas, the articulation of those ideas, and
finally, the building of those ideas. Our own American Revolution saw this
triumvirate at work when the ideas of John Locke were articulated by the
patriots and then built by Franklin, Washington, and Hamilton. It may be
that the sounds of violence and radical change are needed before the builders
can appear to be moderates. Often a period of turmoil and conflict is
followed by one of cooperation and quiet progress.
There is also a debate as to whether leadership occurs best when the
leader has values which are congruent with the group he leads or when his
values are different. Some claim that leadership is possible only when
values are similar; other say that leadership cannot occur unless values are
divergent. Those who argue for similar values state that leadership is
accepted when the leader is trusted and seen as the model of the group.
Those who argue for different values say that leadership is the process of
changing group values. Their position is that leadership cannot exist
Here again it may be possible that both are needed. The leader must
articulate the values of the society, but at the same time have some personal
values that go beyond his followers. Leadership is possible only if one has
followers. One cannot have followers if his views and his values do not
coincide with those of his followers. But leadership is also the process of
going beyond the status quo, exploring new ideas, and creating new forms. In
education, leaders must be in tune with the values of their communities to
hold their jobs. They must also contribute something from themselves to earn
Scholars have also argued as to whether leaders are manipulative or
sincere. Some state that the act of leadership is always manipulative, that
the leader knows where he is going and manipulates others toward his
objectives. Others claim that when leaders believe and are committed to
their purposes, leadership is sincere. Sincerity is defined as the act of
believing one’s own propaganda.
There is no perfect model for examining leadership. There are no exact
criteria. It may be that leadership is so complex that, at best, we can only
obtain clues, study a variety of styles, and partially understand it. We can
feel it when it occurs; we know when it is not there.
The complexities of leadership are such that conclusions are dangerous.
There is no overwhelming consensus on how leaders became leaders and how they
influence the direction of society. There are, however, some things about
leadership with which most students of the concept will agree. These
-------truths may help us to better understand leadership.
1. Leadership is situational and varies with individuals and events. The
situation usually helps to make the leader and at times, the leader happens
to be in the right place at the right time. Harry Truman is a prime example.
2. There is no single way to prepare leaders or to prepare for leadership.
Leaders come from every segment of society and have a variety of styles.
There is no set of characteristics which leaders posses and there is no
single educational program which will produce individuals who posses
3. A leader is someone who has followers. Without followers there is no
leadership act. The leader usually helps others to attain the goals of the
group. He leads them to where they wish to go. If no one is going anywhere,
there is no need for a leader.
4. Leadership has ethical implications. Even the best intentions may have
adverse consequences on others. Sometimes doing what one considers right
hurts other people. At the same time inappropriate leadership acts may have
beneficial effects. The leader must always consider the moral validity of
what is done or not done. In the acts of people, the ethical dimensions
are always present.
5. The study of historical figures helps us to understand leadership.
Socrates teaches us how to take the hemlock; Martin Luther King Jr. and
Gandhi teach us passive moral resistance; and Thomas Jefferson instructs us
on the imperatives of education.
B. Leadership Issues for the 21st Century
As we enter a new century, the issues that face educational leaders are
as complex as ever. Educational leadership is more difficult now than it has
ever been. For those of you who aspire to take on the woe of a people, here
is what you will be confronted by:
1. Decreasing financial support for public education with stronger support
for alternative educational structures: charter schools, open enrollment,
vouchers, choice (within and outside of public education), and home schooling
(one of the most rapidly developing alternatives to public education).
2. Increased demand for accountability for both academic improvement and
preparation of a highly educated work force. You are to accomplish this with
minimal increase in financial support and better utilization of current
3. Increasing expectations to better educate children of a more pluralistic
and troubled society. You will be faced with more special education
children, more children whose primary language is not English, and a greater
number of children who come from nontraditional families – all of which
4. Increasing conflict in the governance of education as more and more
pluralistic interests are expressed. Conflicts will develop over the cost of
educating special needs children, over appropriate curriculum, over safe
buildings, over choice plans, over separation of powers, over teaching
methods, and dozens of other possible conflict areas.
5. Pressure to use more and more technology to improve the quality of
education. At the same time, technology is contributing to greater
differences between rich and poor as it is also influencing pedagogy and
worldwide communications. The cost of technology for schools, however, will
force the majority of schools to play catch-up for decades to come.
C. Needed Leadership Qualities
Faced with these difficult conditions, what do educational leaders of the
future need in order to be successful? The qualities needed can be divided
into personal competencies and technical competencies. Personal competencies
are demanded by the nature of society and technical competencies and are
demanded by the nature of the position of educational leadership.
1. Personal Competencies
Ability to listen effectively – understanding both content and
Ability to validate the accuracy of information received.
Ability to speak frankly and clearly and to speak directly to the
Ability to be positive about life, about self, and about one’s work.
Ability to understand and to articulate learning processes.
Ability to keep current, to synthesize knowledge, and to utilize
Ability to receive satisfaction and reinforcement from one’s work.
Ability to motivate self and to inspire colleagues.
Ability to try new ideas, take risks, and encourage others to do so.
Ability to articulate purpose, to establish a vision, to inspire
confidence in schools.
2. Technical Competencies
Professional and Ethical Leadership
Information Management and Education
Curriculum, Instruction and Learning Environment
Professional Development and Human Resources
Student Personnel Services
Financial Management and Resource Allocation
Technology and Information Systems
D. Imperatives of Leadership
Fred M. Hechinger once stated that effective leaders "lead by example, by
force of ideas, by devotion to fairness and justice." Abraham Lincoln said
that "no man is good enough to govern another man without the other’s
Educational leadership in the future will take what Herman Kahn called
"the quantum leap into a society based on people and not things." Rather
than from positions, leadership will emanate from knowledge, from wisdom,
from the ability to persuade, and from a personal commitment to fairness and
justice. Leadership will be established "through the consent of the
governed," from a basis of ethics, ideas and persuasion. The imperatives of
the this kind of leadership are obvious:
1. The appreciation and protection of democratic principles.
2. The protection and extension of basic human rights.
3. The adherence to ethics, equity, fairness and justice.
4. Knowledge of best practices, effective pedagogy, brain development and
other educational research.
5. Adherence to the exemplar principle.
Horace Mann wrote that "one should be ashamed to die until he has won
some victory for mankind." Henry Kissinger said, "the task of the leader is
to get people from where they are to where they have not been." If we are to
win some victories for mankind, we must move people from vested interest to
the public good, from bigotry to tolerance, from hostility to peaceful
co-existence. The only vehicle to do that is education and that challenge is
In the Euro-Education ’96 conference held in Denmark on May 22nd-24th,
the Danish Minister of Education stated it well. "Education," he said,
"provides the social knowledge enabling all of us to personally participate
in our democracy and a sustainable development of society."
To lead in education, you need to express idealism and practicality. An
idealist is one who sees the goal, but who is also willing to provide
solutions to the concrete problems which prevent the attainment of the goal.
Victory is not achieved by rhetoric, it is attained by getting your hands
dirty, by hard work, by support for teachers, by confrontations with hostile
forces, and by occasionally facing the possibility of taking the hemlock.
Educational leaders have always been positive people – almost missionary
in their belief in the perfectibility of the human race. They never wavered
in their strong understanding of the efficiency of schools and education.
They have had faith in the purposes of schooling. School leaders have
emulated Pilgrim’s Progress in their zeal to provide an effective education
for each boy and girl, no matter the obstacles or the difficulties. Their
mission was indestructible, even as many lost their jobs, were stalemated by
powerful political forces, or were hampered by the lack of resources.
Being an educational leader is difficult. It is complex. It is rarely
honored in song and book. But when the final chapter is written, it will be
education and educational leaders who will have contributed most to the
protection of democracy, to equity, to justice and to human dignity. If you
are willing then to take on the woe of a people, to lead by the force of
ideas, and to govern through the consent of the governed, you will be honored
and respected as an effective educational leader. You will share in the
glory of knowing that you have made a difference and will be praised in the
volumes of educational history to be written in the future.