"School Leadership 101: Understanding the principles of effective leadership leads to better schools." By M. Donald Thomas and William L. Bainbridge. Show Me Education. Spring 2001.

School Leadership 101

Understanding the principles of effective leadership leads to better schools

M. Donald Thomas and William Bainbridge


Educational leadership can be madness or it can make a contribution to improve 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 school leadership must either be mad or a supreme egotist.

Leadership Theories

Since educational leadership is extremely complex, simple models do not adequately explain the individual or the character of leadership. But here is a quick overview of some of the most prominent leadership theories:

One theory suggests that social evolution requires three forms of leadership:

The 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. Often a period of turmoil and conflict is followed by one of cooperation and quiet progress. It may be that radical change is needed before the builders can appear to be moderates.

There is also a debate as to the merits of shared values between a leader and the group upon which the leader aspires to assert influence. Some claim that leadership is possible only when values are similar; others say that leadership cannot occur unless values are divergent.

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 those of the group. Leadership is possible only if one has followers. One cannot have followers if the leader’s views and values do not coincide with those of the group. But leadership is also the process of going beyond the status quo, exploring new ideas, and creating new forms.

Scholars have also argued as to whether effective leaders are manipulative or sincere. Some state that the act of leadership is always manipulative, that the leader knows where he or she is going and manipulates others toward the 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.

Leadership "Truths"

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 leaders with which most students of the concept will agree. These "truths" may help us to better understand leadership.

"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." -John Updike

Leadership Issues for the 21st Century

Educational leadership is more difficult now than it has ever been. Those who aspire to take on the "woe of a people" will be confronted with:

Needed Leadership Qualities

Faced with these difficult conditions, what personal competencies do educational leaders of the future need in order to be successful? In short, they need the ability to:

Imperatives of Leadership

Abraham Lincoln was unquestionably one of the great public policy leaders of his time. Writings by and about Lincoln enumerate executive strategies for tough times. In his book, Lincoln on Leadership, Donald Phillips details ideas that Lincoln would embrace in the 21st century:

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," and from a basis of ethics, ideas and persuasion. The imperatives of this kind of leadership are obvious:

End Results

This has been a quick overview of some very big ideas. We hope it will inspire you to go out and research and study some of the concepts and personalities we have highlighted.

Horace Mann, the father of American education, 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. Education is that vehicle and the challenge is that of the school leader.

Leaders in education need to express idealism and practicality. An idealist is one who sees the goal, but who is also willing to provide solutions. Victory is not achieved by rhetoric. It is attained 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 condition. They never waver in their strong understanding of the usefulness of schools and education. They have faith in the purposes of schooling.

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.


Dr. William Bainbridge, president and CEO of SchoolMatch, was honored as Educator of the Year by the Ohio PTA. Dr. M. Donald Thomas, chairman of the SchoolMatch Advisory Board, was honored as "Educator of the Year" by the Horace Mann League.