The basics of succesful leadership

In organizational sectors as different as schools and the military, and in national cultures as different as The Netherlands, Canada, Hong Kong and the United States, there is compelling evidence of a common core of practices that any successful leader calls on, as needed. Many of these practices are common to different models of leadership, as well. These practices can be thought of as the “basics” of successful leadership. Rarely are such practices sufficient for leaders aiming to significantly improve student learning in their schools. But without them, not much would happen. Three sets of practices make up this basic core of successful leadership practices: setting directions, developing people and redesigning the organization.

1. Setting Directions

Evidence suggests that those leadership practices included in Setting Directions account for the largest proportion of a leader’s impact. This set of practices is aimed at helping one’s colleagues develop shared understandings about the organization and its activities and goals that can under gird a sense of purpose or vision. People are motivated by goals which they find personally compelling, as well as challenging but achievable. Having such goals helps people make sense of their work and enables them to find a sense of identity for themselves within their work context.
Often cited as helping set directions are such specific leadership practices as identifying and articulating a vision, fostering the acceptance of group goals and creating high performanceexpectations. Monitoring organizational performance and promoting effective communication throughout the organization also assist in the development of shared organizational purposes.

2. Developing People

Evidence collected in both school and nonschool organizations about the contribution of this set of practices to leaders’ effects is substantial. While clear and compelling organizational directions contribute significantly to members’ work-related motivations, they are not the only conditions to do so. Nor do such directions contribute to the capacities members often need in order to productively move in those directions. Such capacities and motivations are influenced by the direct experiences organizational members have with those in leadership roles, as well as the organizational context within which people work.
More-specific sets of leadership practices significantly and positively influencing these direct experiences include, for example: offering intellectual stimulation, providing individualized support and providing appropriate models of best practice and beliefs considered fundamental to the organization.

3. Redesigning the Organization

The contribution of schools to student learning most certainly depends on the motivations and capacities of teachers and administrators, acting both individually and collectively. But organizational conditions sometimes blunt or wear down educators’ good intentions and actually prevent the use of effective practices. In some contexts, forexample, high-stakes testing has encouraged a drill-and-practice form of instruction among teachers who are perfectly capable of developing deep understanding on the part of their students. And extrinsic financial incentives for achieving school performance targets, under some conditions, can erode teachers’ intrinsic commitments to the welfare of their students.

Successful educational leaders develop their districts and schools as effective organizations that support and sustain the performance of administrators and teachers, as well as students. Specific practices typically associated with this set of basics include strengthening district and school cultures, modifying organizational structures and building collaborative processes. Such practices assume that the purpose behind the redesign of organizational cultures and structures is to facilitate the work of organizational members and that the malleability of structures should match the changing nature of the school’s improvement agenda.


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