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Leadership Skills in School and Business

What theorists say about applying leadership attributes from the corporate world to the school arena by JAMES H. STRONGE


Research on the principalship identifies multiple and varied roles: defining the school’s vision and mission, managing curriculum and instruction, promoting positive climate, fostering healthy school-community relations, serving as change agent, promoting high expectations, managing fiscal resources, and contributing to the overall effectiveness of the school.

 

While merely a partial list of duties and responsibilities, the words vividly paint a portrait of the high expectations we hold for principals. We expect school principals to be organizational leaders.

What I explore here is the leadership role of principals through the lens of the business and general leadership literature. How, if at all, do the leadership attributes described by popular writers and theorists apply to school leaders? And more to the point, does effective leadership as conceived and practiced in the business community apply equally well to the school community?

Defining Leadership
It’s important to realize that no commonly accepted definition nor set of attributes exists for leadership. While any dictionary may offer a concise definition of the construct, the research and writing on leadership are far less clear.

Warren Bennis, in his 1994 work On Becoming a Leader, wrote that leadership is like beauty: It’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it. "Of all the hazy confounding areas in social psychology, leadership theory undoubtedly contends for top nomination. Probably more has been written and less is known about leadership than any other topic in the behavioral sciences," he wrote 35 years earlier.

The pre-eminent historian and political scientist James MacGregor Burns once stated that our shortcomings in making sense of leadership isn’t from a lack of effort. "Leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomenon on earth," he wrote in his 1978 work Leadership.

Despite the vagrancies, common strands run through the leadership literature. In an effort to summarize this literature, I applied Robert Katz’s classical framework from his Harvard Business Review article, "Skills of an Effective Administrator," to the key organizational leadership concepts and themes described by several influential writers.

Desirable Skills
While leadership is far too complex to be reduced to a set of attributes, the framework is useful in exploring the skills leaders possess and how they interact with others. Thus, in varying ways and in varying degrees depending on the context, effective leaders would demonstrate desirable technical, conceptual and human skills.

  • Technical skills. The technical aspects of leadership reflect the specialized knowledge, tools and techniques that leaders either possess or employ (either themselves or with and through others) to accomplish the task at hand. Stephen Covey’s "habit" of knowing how to put first things first and John Gardner’s call for possessing task competence are examples of technical skills.

  • Conceptual skills. Leadership authors consistently describe leaders as possessing and practicing strong conceptual skills such as intelligence and judgment. However, the essential elements of leadership that often are emphasized are creative and encompass the organization as a whole: the ability to see the big picture, to imagine and to speculate, to envision change. James Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of The Leadership Challenge, described this ability when they wrote about leadership practices of "challenging the process" and "inspiring a shared vision."

  • The technical aspects of leadership reflect the specialized knowledge, tools and techniques that leaders either possess or employ (either themselves or with and through others) to accomplish the task at hand. Stephen Covey’s "habit" of knowing how to put first things first and John Gardner’s call for possessing task competence are examples of technical skills. Leadership authors consistently describe leaders as possessing and practicing strong conceptual skills such as intelligence and judgment. However, the essential elements of leadership that often are emphasized are creative and encompass the organization as a whole: the ability to see the big picture, to imagine and to speculate, to envision change. James Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of , described this ability when they wrote about leadership practices of "challenging the process" and "inspiring a shared vision."
  • Human skills. Although technical and conceptual skills are vital components to the makeup and behavior of leaders, it is the ability to work with and through others in a morally elevating way that epitomizes the leadership literature.

    Two of the top four characteristics desired in business leaders, according to Kouzes and Posner, are being honest and inspiring. They also cite two qualities as central to a leader’s effectiveness: the ability to enable others to act and to encourage the heart. Kouzes and Posner’s description of the true test of leadership has much in common with Covey’s philosophy of win/win thinking and with Burns’ description of transformational leadership since all share the fundamental premise of ethically working for the good of others. According to Burns, transformational leadership is "a relationship of mutual stimulation and elevation that converts followers into leaders and may convert leaders into moral agents."

  • Applying Business Principles
    In some respects, the principles of effective business leadership apply easily to school leadership. In other ways, they don’t.

    Thomas Sergiovanni, in his book Leadership for the Schoolhouse, makes a compelling case against trying to force ideas that work in corporate life onto contemporary educational leaders. "It is not likely that much progress will be made over time in improving schools unless we accept the reality that leadership for the schoolhouse should be different, and unless we begin to invent our own practice," he says.

    At least partially, his criticism of applying corporate leadership theories to schools seems to come from his rejection of top-down leadership in which theories "assume that hierarchy equals expertise." And if leadership means expertise is held by others and imposed on followers and "innovation," such as the total quality movement, is dictated from the top, then I agree. Standardizing work processes or connecting workers tightly to results doesn’t always (or even typically) yield the desired results in educational circles. Simply put, the schoolhouse is neither the boardroom nor the assembly line.

    Plenty of other leadership theorists raise useful parallels despite the common warnings not to adopt business theories and practices wholesale for schools and then to expect miracles. Yet I am convinced much of the leadership theory referenced here is germane for educational leaders.

    Consider the congruence of leadership ideas and ideals that seem to bubble up from both business leadership and educational leadership theories. Lee Bolman and Terry Deal, co-authors of Reframing Organizations, describe an effective leader as a social architect and a servant who supports and empowers others. Sergiovanni, in his book Moral Leadership, emphasizes the human potential of leadership, the importance of moral judgment (for example, judgment based on love, loyalty, outrage, duty, goodness, desire to help) and stewardship. He also argues that if we want theory to reflect emerging practice then we need to move the moral dimension in leadership away from the periphery and right to the center of practice.

    Even a cursory look at the writings of Burns, Bennis, Gardner, Covey, Kouzes and Posner and a host of others reveals the heart of their collective theories: leadership is morally purposeful and elevating. And this is the central theme of educational leadership.

    A different way to view the confluence of business and educational leadership theory is to juxtapose the standards espoused for educational leaders with business and popular press leadership theories. For comparison, I applied Katz’s framework to educational leadership standards from the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium and the American Association of School Administrators’ Standards for the Superintendency.

    Clearly, the professional association standards tend to accentuate technical skill development more than the general leadership theorists, perhaps due to the perceived need to develop technical competence among school leaders (especially at the entry level) as a basis for practice. Nonetheless, considerable overlap exists between the two lists, particularly with regard to such human skills as communication, values and ethics.

    One final comparison between business and educational leader characteristics can be found in a 1996 study conducted by Mike Richardson, Ken Lane and Jackson Flanigan in which they asked teachers to identify the attributes of superior principals. Using Kouzes’ and Posner’s study of attributes of superior business managers, they asked teachers, "What are the characteristics of principals that make them leaders?"

    What they discovered is that teachers identified the same four characteristics desired in principals, ranked in the identical order, that were found in the earlier managers study: honesty, competence, forward-looking, inspirational. Thus, it seems fair to surmise that the characteristics and behavior desired in effective business leaders are the same ones preferred in school leaders.

    Shared Attributes
    Is there common ground between the attributes of school leadership and business leadership?

    While the school is a unique and challenging environment in which to practice, I contend lessons can be learned from the greater leadership community. Indeed, no better description of the role of a school principal exists than James MacGregor Burns’ definition of practical leadership as "the realization of intended, real change that meets people’s enduring needs."

    James Stronge is the Heritage professor of education at the College of William and Mary, P.O. Box 8795, Williamsburg, Va. 23187-8795. E-mail: jhstro@facstaff.wm.edu