This paper began with a brief review of key leadership concepts and this literature revealed that effective leadership in an organization is critical. Initial examinations of leaders reported the differences between leaders and followers. These attempts to isolate specific individual traits led to the conclusion that no single characteristic can distinguish leaders from non-leaders. Situational leadership revealed the complexity of leadership but still proved to be insufficient because the theories could not predict which leadership skills would be more effective in certain situations. The contingency models focused on the fit between personality characteristics, leaders' behaviors, and situational variables but did not clarify which or what combination of these determine effective leadership. Subsequent leadership studies differentiated effective from non-effective leaders. The comparison of effective and non-effective leaders led to the identification of two dimensions, initiating structures and consideration, and revealed that effective leaders were high performers in both. The situation approach to leadership supports the contention that effective leaders are able to address both the tasks and human aspects of their organizations.

Leadership continues to be recognized as a complex enterprise, and as recent studies assert, effective leaders are more than managers. They have vision, develop a shared vision, and value the contributions and efforts of their co-workers in the organization. Transformational leadership holds promise to further an understanding of effective leadership, especially the leadership needed for changing organizations.

This synthesis also sought to examine the literature to identify characteristics that appear to facilitate or impede the implementation of school improvement interventions, especially those likely to benefit at- risk students. The review of leadership literature has led to an initial identification of the six characteristics of leaders of educational change which are:

  • having vision,
  • believing that the schools are for learning,
  • valuing human resources,
  • being a skilled communicator and listener,
  • acting proactively, and
  • taking risks.

Administrators' vision tends to encompass the whole system or, as described by Manasse (1986), their vision is an organizational vision. Teachers' vision appears to focus primarily on the individual or personal actions for school change. However, the two may be different aspects of the same vision. School administrators that have developed a shared vision with their faculty have also created common ground that serves to facilitate or compel action to the realization of this common vision. Underlying a shared vision are teachers' and administrators' shared belief that schools are for students' learning. The connection between leaders' values or beliefs and their vision for their organizations is important.

Effective superintendents believe that students come first; effective principals believe in meeting the instructional needs of the students. Teachers value working with students and believe that they have an impact on their achievement. They have the shared belief that students' learning is of primary importance. This common ground appears to facilitate the development of a shared vision.

The literature revealed further that these individuals' also shared a common value. They valued the human resources — the contributions, talents, and efforts — of others in their organization. The characteristic of valuing human resources manifest in three dimensions: valuing the contributions and efforts of co-workers, relating effectively with others, and fostering collaboration. This characteristic of effective leaders of school change that is connected to their ability to communicate and listen.

The communicating and listening skills of superintendents, principals, and teachers are the basis for their ability to articulate a vision, develop a shared vision, express their belief that schools are for the students' learning, and demonstrate that they value the human resources of their peers and subordinates. Being an effective communicator and listener is also a key component to being proactive and taking risks.

Superintendents, principals and teachers that are effective leaders of school change are proactive. They initiate action, anticipate and recognize changes in their environment that will affect their schools and districts, and challenge the status quo, the established ways of operating, that interfere with realization of their organizations' vision. This characteristic of being proactive merges with being a risk taker.

Principals and superintendents that lead and guide others in school change take risks but not carelessly or without forethought. Furthermore they encourage others to be risk takers by providing an environment that makes this safer. Teachers appear to be reluctant risk takers for a variety of reasons, although current educational reform efforts may change this aspect of teachers.

In the introduction, several uses for this paper were suggested. For those in the throes of implementing a change, this information can be used to:

  • provide a guide for identifying in oneself and companions the characteristics that are facilitating the innovation's implementation;
  • determine which leadership characteristics are most essential for their unique situation;
  • plan professional development activities that would foster and encourage the acquisition of these characteristics; and
  • design learning activities and experiences that foster,promote, encourage, and enhance the formation of these characteristics in educators.

The data regarding the characteristics of leaders of educational change may be used as a guideline for self-evaluation or for the selection of individuals who will lead or participate in implementing school change. However, it is anticipated that any use of these characteristics for evaluation and selection will be accompanied with a thorough understanding of the unique needs of a particular school, community, or district. Finally this paper has provided an increased focus on the types of individuals that lead educational change.

Implications for further research

Although this paper represents an initial effort to examine the personal characteristics of educational leaders that appear to facilitate the implementation of school improvement interventions for at-risk students, it has also fostered questions regarding the personal characteristics needed of the leaders involved in these efforts. The following questions are implications for further research.

  1. Do the characteristics discussed represent a composite picture of leaders of educational change or are there other characteristics that have not surfaced?
  2. Is there a unique formula for these characteristics that educators attempting to implement an educational innovation or a systemic change at the school or district level should seek to possess?
  3. Does having congruent values between a community and a superintendent promote and encourage school improvement?
  4. What is the influence of leaders' values and beliefs on their leadership skills?
  5. Can these characteristics be learned or are they innate? If they can be acquired, how does this occur?

This paper represents an initial attempt to identify the characteristics of leaders who initiate, guide, and provoke school change. Six common characteristics were found in superintendents, principals, and teachers who have experienced the adventure of school change. The data discussed in this synthesis is timely considering current endeavors to restructure districts and schools. Further research attempting to answer the questions that have emerged from this literature review will further our understanding of what types of individuals can lead the needed school reforms as well as provide information on whether or not these characteristics can be acquired throughout an educator's career. The possibility of being able to acquire and use these characteristics holds great promise for those participating in and leading the educational reforms of today.

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Published in Leadership Characteristics that Facilitate Change