by Dr. Tim Glaid
Academic leadership is valued for creating positive social change, a supportive environment, sustainability, reciprocal care, and shared responsibility by increasing the number of people on campus who become committed to change, and effective social change agents for the common good. (Astin, Astin, & Bringle, 2000).

Reiss Medwed says that a personal commitment to lifelong learning is vital to succeeding in an educational or organizational leadership role. She defines a lifelong learner as, “someone who understands that learning is a continuous process and someone who is going to bring their context into that experience.” Making lifelong learning a personal priority gives educational leaders the authenticity to share its value to others.

Whether one’s role is as a classroom leader, educational professional, non-profit coordinator, or corporate trainer, it is important to understand that every stakeholder they will interact with is a part of a learning network in their own classrooms and organizations. By modeling the love of lifelong learning, it influences others to value that trait, as well.

Medwed shares that part of the working in the educational field requires accepting that no matter one’s title or role, he or she must continue to improve and develop throughout his or her career.

“Each of us is always a learner…we’re constantly going to be learning new things,” according to Medwed. The nimbler the learner, she adds, the better. (Linsey Knerl,  March 12, 2019)
According to Frank Clint and Lesley Chapel, (September 5, 2020), an educational leader serves as a guide and influences other educators in an administrative setting. In some cases, it may be a team of educational leaders. Leaders in these executive roles work toward finding ways to improve learning and to improve the process of educating students. They serve in elementary, secondary, and post-secondary institutions as well as early childhood education centers. School site leaders, directors, principals, and assistant administrators are employed to work either as the sole educational leader or in small teams. Typical positions for educational leaders in administrative settings are:

  • Principal
  • Superintendent
  • Academic dean
  • Director
  • Head of school
  • Department chair
  • Provost, or
  • President

Educational leadership theories borrow from business management principles. In the United States and other developed nations, leadership models from the business world were adapted to fit the educational setting. Since schools and their communities are diverse and change over time, theories regarding the role and function of educational leaders have likewise been reformed and remodeled.

Researchers continue to investigate leadership in different educational settings. One style of leadership is not better than another. Each is more or less effective based on the context of the setting in which a leader works. Environmental factors such as size, school culture, staff, and personalities dictate the most suitable leadership style.

Most theories of educational leadership refer to the type of leader or style of leader based on essential elements such as capabilities, practices, and approaches. Theory components are classified into three categories: characteristics, concepts, and practices of educational leaders. These three components help in understanding leadership types as a theory.

  • Characteristics of educational leadership, which include behaviors, styles, and leadership traits
  • Concepts of educational leadership, which include management vs. leadership, power, coercion, and conceptual frameworks; and
  • Activities or practices of educational leaders, which include approaches or ways of leading

Through an understanding of these components, one can begin to understand him or herself as an educational leader and understand the impact of leadership on student learning.

On May 29, 2018, Elevate – The Honor Society Magazine shared five qualities needed for academic leadership, in their article of the same name.  Posing the questions to their readers:

Do you feel like you are a natural born leader?

Do others look to both your academic and interpersonal skills when they need help?

Are you interested in learning how to grow your leadership abilities so that you can use them to launch your career or get into the college you have always dreamed about?

The following shares the aforementioned five of the most important core values needed for excellent academic leadership.

1. Excellent Communication Skills Are Necessary for Academic Leadership

Far and away the most important academic leadership quality that a person can have? The ability to both communicate their own ideas effectively, as well as listen and prove engagement with the ideas of others. Imagine you have been nominated by your classmates as the leader of a large group project. How can you make your expectations clear when it comes to what you expect out of each member of the group? How can you ensure that the people you’re working with also get a say, and feel that their own ideas are being heard?

It is all about good — and usually, frequent — communication.

Start by asking people about what they love to do. Once you get to know their strengths (and even their personalities) you’ll be able to delegate in a way that satisfies everyone. Then, be sure to check in throughout the process. Set several smaller goals as opposed to one large one, to make evaluating your progress and the process easier. Above all, remain open to both feedback and criticism, and truly listen to what others have to say.

2. Proactivity

Too many people spend their lives sitting around, waiting for a miracle to happen. However, they are not actually putting in the work — instead, they’re just relying on “fate” or “coincidence” or “luck” to make all of their dreams come true. Additionally, proactivity is all about planning ahead and anticipating problems. It means always having a Plan B in place so that you’re not scrambling when something unexpected happens.

You might create a study schedule for an upcoming exam, in order to prevent cramming the night before. You might start researching and applying to summer academic programs months before the summer vacation actually starts so that you can be sure to pick the best one for you.

Of course, being proactive means that you will also have a list of other possible ways to spend your summer, just in case you do not get into the program of your choice. Proactivity means having the ability to recognize which tasks are the most essential, and creating a prioritized list of what needs to be accomplished first. Above all, it is about being prepared for the worst while still hoping, planning, and staying positive about getting the best results.

3. Knowing When to Take Risks

Strong academic leadership is not about playing it safe. Of course, there is a difference between knowing when to take risks, and acting in a reckless manner. The quality of a good leader is knowing which risks are worth taking. This means that you will need to evaluate the potential losses and gains of each risky decision you’re considering making. What is the worst thing that could happen — and are those worst-case scenarios something you can recover from?

Alternatively, are the possible positive outcomes simply too great to pass up? And do you have a determined team of people around you that can lessen your chances of failure? Remember, leadership (and life) is all about getting out of your comfort zone.

4. Resilience

One of the most important qualities when it comes to academic leadership? Being able to get back up when you’re knocked down — and not letting the feeling of “failure” scare you off from trying again. People are not going to like your ideas. You are going to make some missteps along the way. Your proposals will get rejected, you won’t win every election, and you won’t ace every exam.

What matters is your ability to learn from your mistakes, and to appreciate the errors you’ve made as an opportunity for growth. Adopting a resilient attitude will not only prevent you from talking down to yourself and underestimating your abilities. It will also inspire those around you to dust themselves off and get back out there. Embrace rejection, and count every failure as one step closer to a success.

5. Passion for What You Do

Let us get one thing straight: if you do not truly love what you do, chances are that you will not be motivated to keep working at it for much longer. Think about something that brings you joy in life. Maybe you’re obsessed with traveling, maybe you love the feeling of winning a competition or game, or perhaps you have always wanted to follow a certain career path. Whatever you are passionate about, think about how your academic performance and even extracurricular activities will help you to feed that passion and improve your skill set.

If you love what you do, you won’t think twice about staying up late to get things done. Staying in to study as opposed to going out with your friends to a big party will not feel like a sacrifice because you know you’re on the road to a larger goal waiting down the line. Once you figure out what makes you tick, stick with it — and share your love with others so they can be inspired by your passion.

Ready To Start Practicing Academic Leadership?

In this post, five of the many personal and professional qualities needed for academic leadership were outlined. Now, you just need to put these ideas into practice in your own life, as you lead in an academic setting.  Understand the context of the school’s setting, including the size, culture, staff and personalities of your followers.  Communicate often, and listen to your people.

Be proactive, and take appropriate risk in your decision-making.  Remain committed, resilient, and flexible.  And finally, love and appreciate the opportunity to lead in your institution, for the good of your students and staff.

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