Leadership is Learned: Four Ways to Unleash the Leader Within

Leaders are made, not born. Step up your leadership game by embracing your authentic style, relying on others’ strengths, building resilience, and facilitating open conversations about equity and justice.
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Leaders are made, not born. At New Leaders, we believe that everyone has untapped leadership potential. Of course, some people may be predisposed to behaviors that are frequently associated with school leadership. But leadership can be learned.

Here are four strategies, supported by research and first-hand experience, that you can put in place to enhance your leadership development and build new leadership skills. And help those around you to do the same.  

Embrace your authentic leadership style

Every leader leads differently, and it’s important to understand what leadership style comes naturally to you. A precursor to enhancing your school leadership is to lead with authenticity. Successful leaders try to be the best version of themselves, not a second-rate version of someone else.

Being authentic begins with knowing and accepting your strengths and the areas in which you may not be as strong. You’ll be recognized as an authentic leader when you remain consistent in your behaviors and tethered to your values. And when you’re viewed as authentic, others are more likely to give you their trust.

When we realize our leadership potential and that of those around us, we always achieve more for our students.

A multitude of tools, many of which you may be familiar with, are available to help you take stock of your strengths, weaknesses, and leadership capacity. Some of the more popular tools include the Myers-Briggs Indicator and the Strengthsfinder 2.0.

Rely on the strengths of others

Once you’re honest with yourself about your strengths, the leader within you will want you to learn how to rely on the strengths of others. Effective school leaders partner with others who have strengths that the leader may be lacking. This helps them to move towards a shared vision more quickly. A principal never works alone.

This kind of leadership, known as distributed leadership, allows you to leverage and build the capacity of other leaders in your building. New Leaders alum and Executive Director, Program Implementation, Beulah McLoyd led her new school to exceptional performance through an instructional culture that enabled students to thrive. How? She leveraged her instructional leadership team. McLoyd describes distributed leadership as “setting a mission and a destination for your team, but mapping the journey with them.”

When you recognize the qualities and experience that teachers and other members of the school community—including students and families—bring to the table, you can support them in taking initiative and exercising leadership to improve outcomes for all.

Persevere when the going gets tough

Continuing to persevere when there are bumps in the road or a wrinkle in the plan is a hallmark quality of a great school leader. As described by the Stockdale Paradox popularized by Jim Collins, an effective leader confronts challenges head-on while maintaining the confidence to take action. Resilience hangs in the balance of tough realities and the confidence to go forth. In the face of adversity, effective principals don’t give up on their vision, themselves, their staff, or their students.

At New Leaders, we know a lot about resilience and professional learning. Our alumni and partners are radically transforming schools and communities for the better. Here are four proven ways to build your resilient leadership skills:

  • Demonstrate personal resolve and confidence, even in difficult situations
  • Continuously reflect on performance and seek feedback to improve
  • Take initiative and be solutions-oriented
  • Build professional and personal supports, including self-care, to sustain your ability to lead over time

And remember: educational leaders use mistakes as opportunities to learn. Next time you are faced with a mistake, don’t label it a failure. Recognize and honor how you feel. Ask yourself what you can learn from the situation and take the next step forward, without dwelling on the past.

Successful leaders try to be the best version of themselves, not a second-rate version of someone else.

Have the conversation

When difficult situations arise, no matter the scale, effective leaders don’t shy away from having meaningful, open conversations. New Leaders alum and principal Kiltae Fernando Kim explains the concept of “day after conversations” as a way to hold space and time for staff and students to discuss complex situations related to equity and social justice. These conversations don’t just happen. An effective school leader needs to make them a priority.  

Good leaders learn how to facilitate open conversations and hone these skills over time. By responding to history in real-time, authentic conversations help students make meaning and process trauma. These conversations confront hard truths and create an inclusive environment where all students and teachers, particularly those of color, feel safe and supported.

If this is an area in which you’d like to grow and deepen your professional development, here are some prompts that you can use or share with your team to begin conversations with students.

  • What is one word that describes how you are feeling today?
  • What were you thinking about or feeling when you saw or heard about what happened?
  • What has the impact been on your family and/or community?

Transformational leadership

Transformational leadership doesn’t happen by chance. As James Clear writes in his global bestseller Atomic Habits: “Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity.”

How will you use these strategies to fully step into the leader within you? Or better yet: how will you use this knowledge to create experiences that help your staff, colleagues, and students develop their leadership capacity and skills too? When we realize our leadership potential and that of those around us, we always achieve more for our students.

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