President's Corner

What Kind of Leader Are You?


At one point in my life I thought I would be a great scientist who would make an important contribution to humanity. But one day, I went with a friend to help teach Sunday school in a prison for boys. I realized rather quickly, "None of these boys can read!" That’s why I changed my major in college and switched to education. I’m in the business of leading change to help all children succeed.

These three things I know about leadership:

  • Leaders who collaborate are better than those who dictate;

  • Leaders with a moral compass based on honesty, fairness and respect for others inspire others to make change; and

  • Leaders with high expectations produce greater results than those with low expectations.

    What kind of leader are you? A dictator or a collaborator? Too often when people think of becoming a leader, they think in terms of lineage (someone who ascends to the throne), the hierarchy or the organizational chart. They talk about leaders as being in front of the troops with reinforcement behind the lines. They see the leader as someone who holds power, someone who tells you what to do. This kind of leader says: "Our vision is MY vision." In other words, a dictator. But as comic Redd Foxx once said: "If you’re a leader with no followers, you’re just taking a walk."

    The real line to leadership is through collaboration. A collaborator is not out in front, all alone. A collaborator puts together an effective team, relies on the team to help lead and keeps the team motivated by making members feel valued.

    There are three keys to becoming a collaborative leader:

  • No. 1: Know who your team is and what they do. That’s why I spend one day a month teaching. When teachers, custodians and bus drivers know you understand their world, it builds morale and makes them feel valued.

  • No. 2: Listen and hear what your team is saying. Honor your critics and search for understanding.

  • No. 3: Expand your definition of a team. Involving your critics and supporters can be a painful process at times but in the end it produces a product, that is widely supported and energizing.

    What are your values? To be a leader you must know who you are and what you stand for. Great school leaders have a moral compass based on honesty, fairness and respect for others that gives them the moral authority to succeed. If you believe in the value of every child and your actions support that belief, you will have the courage to deal with opportunities you’d just as soon not come your way.

    Living up to your values will require you to draw a line in the sand over critical issues. That doesn’t mean you can’t use your collaborative skills to create a winning situation, however. Leadership also means knowing when to step over that line you’ve drawn--and bring people back over to your side.

    Finally, strong school leadership sets high expectations for staff, school families and communities as well as for students. Those high expectations provide the motivation for growth, change and accomplishment that otherwise might not flourish. When all students are encouraged and supported as they work to achieve their highest potential and when all parents are targeted for involvement and respected for their efforts, people respond. There is tremendous power and pride in creating a shared vision of excellence.

    Leading an educational institution can be challenging. The distractions are many, from budgets to bureaucracies to benchmarks. But effective leaders never forget whom they are serving--our children. Through collaboration, living your values and setting high expectations, your opportunities to build a better future for children never have been greater.

    Ben Canada is president of AASA.