When my wife, Kathleen, and I were both principals (she still is), we often debated about leadership styles, and what the most effective leadership styles were for school leaders. By the end of the debate, we usually ended it with the same conclusion…and ultimately the agreement to agree to disagree. The premise of Kathleen’s argument is that there are certain characteristics/leadership qualities school leaders have to have. For example, one we discussed often was “toughness”. “Toughness” obviously looks different to different people and in different situations. Kathleen’s idea about the importance of toughness came from the almost daily necessity of having difficult conversations and an unwavering commitment to one’s expectations no matter the situation. Kathleen is absolutely right that these types of conversations take place on a daily basis, whether with a teacher, staff member, student, or parent, and the list goes on. These types of conversations can be emotionally taxing, and aren’t comfortable for either of us to have. She is much better than me though!
My counterpoint to the argument that school leaders, or leaders in general, need to possess certain characteristics or leadership qualities to be effective is: there are a number of leadership styles that can be effective in schools, and organizations in general, but the most important attribute is consistency to one’s core leadership beliefs and principles.
Before I outline my rationale, I want to shamelessly promote my wife. She might kill me for discussing this ongoing conversation of ours in this article (that is if she reads it, which she likely won’t. Shh, let’s keep it a secret). Aside from loving her to the moon and back, she is one of the most competent professionals I have ever met. Her level of efficiency would make productivity gurus David Allen and Kevin Kruze jealous. Kathleen has an unwavering belief and commitment to the schools, teachers, and students she serves. She is inspiring and a tireless worker. Truthfully, I am slightly overplaying our different stances for the sake making the point of the article clear.
Okay, back to my argument. Why do I think consistency is the most important attribute? In a professional setting, I believe humans place tremendous value in predictability. People following the leader value the predictability of knowing how the leader will react when things are going really well, and, even more importantly, when things aren’t going well.
As a leader, I know the people who I was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to lead, didn’t always agree with my decisions, but I believe they ultimately trusted me because of the consistency with which I adhered to my core leadership beliefs and principles. Those beliefs and principles are: 1) clear and consistent communication; 2) being present physically and mentally in all situations; and 3) providing specific, meaningful recognition. If one were to survey my former staff, I believe themes related to these attributes would show themselves consistently. “Toughness” would likely not find its way onto the list, and it is likely there is no one leader that shares the exact, or even any of the same, beliefs and principles. My argument is that the beliefs and principles do not matter as long as they are displayed consistently.
Some may argue that a proficient leader should adjust his or her leadership style to a style that most effectively motivates each person one leads and I agree…to an extent. Let me use an example from one of the leadership beliefs/principles above: recognition. I believe in providing specific, meaningful recognition to people, but also know that individuals react to, and prefer to receive, recognition differently. Some people love public recognition, and others prefer recognition through a meaningful handwritten note. Notice how one can remain true to their core leadership beliefs and principles while catering to what motivates each individual? Where I believe people, myself included, go wrong is when they stray from their core leadership beliefs and principles to try to better motivate a staff member, and unfortunately their well-intentioned and logical shift in style, actually causes them to become unpredictable to that person and other followers (who are always watching!). In my opinion, it is better to stay true to who you are (consistency!). It’s unlikely that a leader will “click” with every person they lead, but I believe they will gain each followers respect by practicing an unwavering commitment to who they are as leader. This equals consistency.