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by Dr. Quintin Shepherd

Shepherd is the superintendent of Pflugerville ISD and works as an adjunct professor at the University of Houston-Victoria. He has served as a superintendent for the past 19 years in three states. This article originally appeared in the spring 2024 issue of TASA’s INSIGHT.

As we navigate the ever-evolving educational landscape, a fundamental question that provokes deep reflection among education leaders is, “Which traits and behaviors are most essential for our success?” Unearthing the answer to this question will help us collectively unveil a roadmap to effective leadership in the 21st century.

The formal study of leadership only just began in the early 20th century. Initially, the focus was on traits, with researchers attempting to identify the characteristics of great leaders. This approach was common from the 1900s to the 1940s and was termed the “Great Man” theory. The assumption here was that leaders are born, not made, and that great leaders will arise when the situation requires it.

This trait approach gave way to a focus on behavior in the mid-20th century, from around the 1940s to the 1960s. Researchers began to look at what leaders do rather than who they are. Various models were proposed, including democratic vs. autocratic leadership and task-oriented vs. relationship-oriented leadership.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the contingency or situational approach became prominent. This perspective proposed that the effectiveness of a leadership style depends on the situation. Researchers tried to identify which styles worked best in which situations.

From the late 20th century to the present, the focus has been on transformational leadership — leaders who inspire, empower, and stimulate their followers. There is also increasing attention to ethical and servant leadership — leaders who are moral, community-focused and put the needs of their followers before their own.

Amidst the realities of globalization, digital transformation, and socioeconomic and political shifts, the education sector necessitates leaders with an augmented blend of characteristics. These traits go beyond the traditional leadership virtues of vision and communication, delving into realms of courage, stamina, resilience, competence, confidence, and perhaps most importantly, curiosity. However, the wisdom of leadership is also to acknowledge the double-edged nature of these traits — the very aspects that empower may also pose threats if not balanced judiciously.

Traits of Leadership: The Double-Edged Sword

The first of these traits, leadership courage, is the fortitude to make challenging decisions, the audacity to challenge the status quo, and the mettle to stand up for what’s right, even when unpopular. It’s a shield that protects the integrity of the education system; however, courage unchecked can also lead to unnecessary risks or ventures into perilous situations without an exit strategy. The audacity that sparks innovation can ignite conflicts if not tempered with empathy and foresight. Far too often we hear about leadership courage as the answer to all problems when this is simply not true. Leadership courage might get you into a problem, but there’s no guarantee that it will get you out of it.

Leadership stamina, or resilience, is the ability to endure hardships, rebound from failures, and continuously strive to improve amidst adversity. Stamina is the fuel that keeps the engine of educational change running. It’s a crucial trait as the current climate of education involves ceaseless changes and adaptations. However, resilience can sometimes morph into stubbornness, resisting necessary changes or pushing unproductive initiatives. This is the fate of the autocrat. Stamina must be aligned with the flexibility to learn and change direction. Is resilience the answer? Perhaps, or perhaps not.

Leadership confidence is believing you can do the job. Leadership competence is knowing you can do the job. Competence is about possessing the necessary skills and knowledge to perform tasks effectively. In the context of education leadership, this includes understanding pedagogical principles, curriculum design, and education policies. However, overemphasis on competence can lead to micromanagement or even nano-management, suppressing the creativity and autonomy of the team. Competence must be balanced and tempered with trust and delegation. Confidence, the belief in oneself and one’s abilities, is key to inspiring trust and motivating others. Yet, unchecked confidence can cross the line into arrogance, alienating team members and clouding judgment. Confidence should be paired with humility and the willingness to learn from others.

How is it that all these traits have great strengths, but carry a shadow of great weakness? The intriguing paradox that these leadership traits embody, presenting profound strengths and yet concealing inherent vulnerabilities, raises a question. What is the correct course of action? This quandary frequently confronts both novice and seasoned leaders alike. Reflecting on two decades of my experiential journey — a journey that involved acquiring wisdom from others while simultaneously mentoring emerging leaders — I identify a recurrent four-word concern that persistently nudges our consciousness: “What if I’m wrong?” I believe this is the secret to discovering what is right.

Leadership Curiosity: The Key to Reframing Leadership

To harmonize the above dichotomies, a critical trait (and behavior) stands out: leadership curiosity. This is the constant thirst to learn, to question, and to seek new perspectives. It enables leaders to step back and critically assess if they are applying the right trait in the right situation. It fosters an agility to navigate the ever-changing educational landscape.

Curiosity also facilitates a shift from a stance of ‘closed and knowing’ to ‘open and learning.’ The ‘closed and knowing’ stance is a fortress, guarded by ego and preconceived notions. All of us spend vast amounts of time as closed and knowing. This is not an inherently bad thing. It helps us feel validated as human beings to have our voice heard and recognized. The problem we face as leaders is that we are often asked to be ‘closed and knowing’ when we should be ‘open and learning.’ The ‘open and learning’ stance is like a garden that nurtures diversity of thoughts, flexibility, and growth. It redefines leadership from a command-and-control approach to a more collaborative and facilitative role.

“You can be flat-footed, back-on-your-heels or forward-center-of-mass,” as Andrew Huberman has stated. The savvy leader knows both how and when to make the pivot. A curious leader committed to cultivating an ‘open and learning’ approach might frequently pose the following questions to themselves:

  1. “Am I actively seeking diverse perspectives?” Encouraging diversity of thought challenges assumptions, stimulates creativity, and fosters a culture of inclusion.
  2. “Am I creating a safe space for dialogue and dissent?” This promotes an environment where team members feel confident to voice their ideas and concerns, thus enriching decision-making processes.
  3. “Do I value questions as much as answers?” Treasuring curiosity fosters a learning environment and encourages continuous growth.
  4. “Am I open to feedback, both positive and constructive?” Feedback is a vital source of learning, and leaders should be as open to receiving it as they expect their team members to be.
  5. “Am I learning from failures and mistakes?” Failure can be an extremely valuable teacher if one is open to learning from it.
  6. “Am I seeking to understand before seeking to be understood?” This reflects active listening, a key element in empathetic and effective leadership.
  7. “Am I making room for personal and professional growth?” Leaders should ensure they are constantly learning, evolving, and setting an example for their team.
  8. “Am I facilitating rather than dictating?” An open and learning leader guides and empowers their team members instead of micromanaging them.
  9. “Am I keeping up with changes and trends in education and leadership?” Continuous learning about one’s field is a must for effective leadership.
  10. “Am I nurturing a culture of learning within my organization?” As leaders, the culture they cultivate often sets the tone for the entire organization.

A culture of learning encourages continuous improvement and innovation. I am certain you answered “yes” to all the above, so I will encourage you to read these questions a second time, and this time answer them as if I said don’t tell me, show me. I suspect your answers might change.

Conclusion: Embracing the Paradox

To quote F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Modern educational leadership calls for embracing paradoxes. It’s about recognizing that leadership traits are not a rigid formula but a dynamic spectrum that needs constant adjustment.

The dance of leadership dichotomies is a journey of continuous learning. It’s about fostering courage without recklessness, stamina without obstinacy, competence without micromanagement, confidence without arrogance, and maintaining an insatiable curiosity. As we dare to embrace these dichotomies, we develop an education leadership model that is not just about surviving but thriving in the 21st century educational ecosystem. This journey towards leadership success is indeed a dance with dichotomies — a dance of balance, rhythm, grace, and constant learning. So, let us keep our minds open, our curiosity piqued, and continue to question, reflect and learn as we navigate the path of educational leadership.

Wanted: Your Leadership Perspective
If you’re an experienced school leader and TASA member with some leadership perspective to share, email Dacia Rivers with a short description of your proposed article, and we may publish it in a future issue of INSIGHT and/or on the TASA website.