Guest Column

The Art of Leadership


True leadership requires passion and conviction. One can read about the science of leadership in textbooks, and teaching about leadership styles is easy.

The art of leadership, however, is more difficult to learn and comes about from keen perception, excellent listening skills and plain old experience. Just as an artist painstakingly creates a masterpiece by applying thought and creativity, a strong leader molds a team in the same manner—constantly going back to the drawing board until success is achieved.

Early in my career I learned an important lesson about leadership that has served me well. The success of an innovative idea is only as good as the amount of time and energy people are willing to invest. As a new administrator, I spent numerous hours trying to convince leadership team members that an idea could work or a goal could be reached; but sometimes many were convinced these new concepts would be impossible to achieve. If a person in a supervisory position resists change or does not agree with the direction of the organization, the vision will remain a blur. It takes more than a mere vision to be an effective leader.

Sixteen years ago I was hired as the superintendent of the Alhambra Elementary School District in Phoenix, Ariz., where I was able to put my leadership skills to the test. Alhambra’s success story did not happen overnight, but instead resulted from a dedicated staff believing that 80 percent of our students can achieve what we used to think only 20 percent could achieve. Owing to the staff’s perseverance and dedication, Alhambra earned local, state and national recognition as a district achieving success against all odds.

I have come to realize effective leadership takes more than having a clear vision and setting measurable goals. A competent leader also must be innovative and responsive to change. I believe strong leadership skills are derived from three simple premises.

* Use passion as the driving force.
The first stroke on the artist’s canvas is to select an activity, goal or arena for which one has a great passion. People who are passionate about what they do have an ultimate driving force that provides energy and stamina. It is this desire that allows a person to accomplish great things.

Passion enables you to view challenges as opportunities. Some of my greatest challenges as superintendent provided me with the most significant opportunities to make a difference. For example, when I was hired student achievement in the 3rd grade was extremely low. I realized that to make a dramatic change, I first needed to identify the challenge and then step out of the traditional leadership role and become part of the solution.

After brainstorming possible ideas with 3rd-grade teachers, we started the Superintendent’s Math Achievement Club, an activity designed to improve students’ math skills. In addition to regularly assigned math homework, students completed the superintendent’s monthly math workbooks at home with the help of their parents. As a team, we developed a passion for increasing achievement that resulted in innovative solutions.

* Select people who believe in your vision and goals.
Strong employee relations is the backbone to successful organizations. For programs to be effective, team members must believe in the organization’s goals and be willing to step up to the plate to get things done. For example, the Superintendent’s Math Achievement Club was not a mandated program. Instead I solicited volunteer teachers who were interested in seeing this through. Those classrooms that participated in the program showed a significant increase in math achievement.

The success of the program quickly spread throughout the district and expanded year after year. Now every teacher in 2nd, 3rd and 4th grade voluntarily participates. In addition, the district started the Superintendent’s Reading Challenge in 5th grade and the Superintendent’s Geography Club in 6th grade. All told, more than 6,700 students were involved.

In essence it is not the initial idea that makes something successful, but rather the people with energy and passion to make it work. Choose people who want to be part of the solution, and allow them to be the driving force.

* Don’t be the lone ranger.
In the beginning stages of my career, I learned you cannot make significant and lasting changes alone. As a leader, you sometimes need to work as a side-by-side partner, sometimes as a facilitator empowering your people to forge ahead while you support from behind, and sometimes leading from the front removing obstacles along the way. A good leader uses all these strategies.

The strengths of a good leader include empowering your team, listening to others and sharing ideas. It usually is not the idea that gets the ball rolling but rather the follow through that gets the job done.

For example, a decade ago the employees of the Alhambra district put their heads together to start a unique college scholarship program for former students. The Alhambra Foundation for the Future, a nonprofit organization, solicits funds solely for college scholarships. Year after year, employees rally together to make this program work, and to date the Foundation has awarded 228 scholarships based on $700,000 in donations.

My secret for success? I surrounded myself with visionary, dedicated and caring individuals who have a drive and passion for excellence and want to make a difference.

Carol Peck is president and CEO of the Rodel Charitable Foundation-Arizona, 6720 N. Scottsdale Road, Suite 380, Scottsdale, AZ 85253. E-mail: She is the former superintendent of the Alhambra Elementary School District in Phoenix and the 1991 National Superintendent of the Year.