Effective Leadership

Posted by on Aug 2, 2009


*This is a reflection post required for my JHU-ISTE Leadership program.

This post is in response to the following two questions.

  • How has what you’ve learned so far in this course shaped your concept of an effective leader?
  • Based on what you’ve learned so far, what are the top 3-5 characteristics you believe a successful principal must possess?

John W. Gardner (2007) defines leadership as “the process of persuasion or example by which an individual (or leadership team) induces a group to pursue objectives held by the leader or shared by the leader and his or her followers” (locations 323-27).  To me, then, effective leadership would mean simply having a group of people pursue my objectives.  Because being a leader, according to Gardner, is simply the act of getting the people to follow objectives, and by doing so, I would, in the simplest form of the term, be effective.  The thing is, I don’t want to be effective, and I don’t want to be an effective leader.  I want to be more than that.

I want to be an exceptional leader.  If I’m being honest, I’d like to be one of the best leaders in education.  I don’t mean that to sound prideful or arrogant in any way, and I fear many people are greatly trepid to speak of themselves in such terms because it makes it sound like it’s more about us than anything else.  But it’s not.  I want to be one of the best leaders in education because of what that will mean for the staff or district I’m leading.  And I want to lead for the sake of people, not for the sake of leading.

I want to consider the work of Robert Evans as he discusses leadership.  I want to lead with integrity and always stand for the value of learning.  I want to allow Thomas J. Sergiovanni’s work on servant leadership to drive me to consider the needs of the constituents I lead through serving in a way that builds the capacity for leadership in every person in my building or district.  I want to keep my mind focused on the differences I can make rather than the minutia I will face.

I truly want to find a way to capitalize on the work of Chris Argryis and build within my institution the ability to engage in organizational learning.  I want my institution to do this in a manner that will move us forward together and in a direction that will prove to be valuable for our students.

And I don’t want to call it my institution.  I want it to be ours.  And I want us to be one of the best.  Not the best on test scores or athletics or technology utilization or the best for the sake of being the best.  I want to be the best for the sake of our students and for what that will mean for their lives and future.

For that, I want to be more than effective; I want to be exceptional.

Gardner, J. W. (2007). The nature of leadership. In The Jossey-Bass reader on educational leadership [Kindle]. Jossey-Bass teacher series. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons.
Thanks to ashley.adcox for the use of the Flickr image.


  1. Jennifer
    August 3, 2009


    Great goal. Your philosophy is certainly student-centered, and that makes a difference. My concern about student-centered philosophies is that I can only change what I do and think, and I’m a teacher, so I need to be somewhat teacher-centered in focusing on what I learn and do. You seem to acknowledge your role in this, which sometimes gets lost in “student-centered” thinking.

    I look forward to following your progress to exceptional. 🙂

    (although I think that by thinking this way, you already are exceptional)

  2. Melissa Varley
    August 6, 2009

    You said, I want to be an exceptional leader. If I’m being honest, I’d like to be one of the best leaders in education.

    Ben, this is great. Should you start out saying, “Well, I’d like to be a leader and it doesn’t much matter if I’m terrible?” You have a goal and it sounds like you have a good grasp on theory to help you reach that goal. Great job!

  3. wmchamberlain
    August 8, 2009

    While there are exceptions, I think most education leaders in general are trying to lead teachers. Their goal is to cause a change in thinking among the teachers. What they don’t necessarily address is how this change should filter down to the students.

    When deciding on what masters track I wanted to take, I purposely chose curriculum and instruction and not administration. I don’t want to be an effective or exceptional leader of adults, I want to be an effective leader of students. I honestly think that is is very difficult to be an administrator that can be an effective student leader. I think it is too hard for the principal etc. to develop the relationships required to be a change agent for a student. I suppose that is why most focus on the staff instead.

    My question to you is how do you become an exceptional leader of students when you can’t develop a close relationships with all your students?

  4. Ben Grey
    August 10, 2009

    Jennifer- I agree with you that you can ultimately only determine changes in what you do and think, but don’t underestimate the value of your influence on your students. Yes, I think you need to make sure you focus on what you are learning and doing, but you do so in a way that always has the students in mind. You don’t change for the sake of changing, or change for the sake of your teaching, in my opinion, you change for the sake of the students and their learning.

    Melissa (JHU program professor)- I sure am glad I didn’t start out that way. Thanks for the feedback.

    WM- An excellent question. I’m actually going to defer this, hopefully, to a couple leaders who I think can address is better than I can as they are presently in a position. I’ll see if Chris Lehmann or Tim Lauer can respond from their perspectives as building principals.

  5. monika hardy
    August 10, 2009

    wm – i think you are certainly onto a key element. we need to start listening to and working with and empowering kids more. fostering their leadership potential.

    last year our student council started meeting regularly with admin. that was huge.

    even though that was a small part of the school population – because it was so meaningful and empowering to the stuco kids – it became something remarkable. kids school wide felt the ripple.
    others started acknowledging admin as a listening entity. one that was in fact there – first and foremost – for kids.

    changes the flavor completely.

  6. Ken
    August 15, 2009

    Ben great post. I always cringe when I hear folks refer to the principal at my school as a leader. I have the fortunate privilege to have experienced varying forms of quality leadership, sadly very few of these instances are within education. But, to borrow on my primarily athletic experiences I agree with your statements above and would love to see administrative credential classes reform such that at least one class is on the methods, strategies, characteristics, and implementations of good leadership. Being in a decision making and/or authoritative position does not automatically anoint a person to be a leader.

  7. Cristy
    July 28, 2010

    I would add to the following, “To me, then, effective leadership would mean simply having a group of people pursue my objectives,” by saying that those who pursue the leaders objectives are doing so because they think it is their idea. Cristy


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