John Schembari, Ed.D. is a New York City metropolitan area school improvement coach and former school/district administrator. John provides one-on-one and group coaching supports around K-12 teacher pedagogy, curriculum, assessment, and leadership development. Currently, he partners with the Center for Educational Innovation, Fordham University, CUNY/Brooklyn College, NJPSA, TNTP, and the School Culture and Climate Initiative in this work. Prior, he served as founding high school principal (Newark, NJ), K-12 chief academic officer in a New Jersey school district, and national director of leadership development with the Cristo Rey School Network. He also served as chief academic officer at the American International School of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia and as a leadership development facilitator with New Visions for Public Schools.
As an education consultant working in schools, I am often called upon to support rising leadership. If I can categorize these individuals for a moment, most are enthusiastic, possess a “let’s get it done yesterday” attitude, and are critical thinkers ready to engage full throttle in making their vision of what schools can and should be a reality. However, if I can give rising leaders one piece of advice it would be this –There are several leadership styles that leaders can – and should – consider adopting based on their personalities, the needs of their team, and the circumstances they face; slow down and assess exactly what kind of leader their school needs.
Let me use “Joe” as an example. Joe has recently been appointed as an instructional lead team supervisor in a school where I consult. In his role, he not only coaches a group of content area and grade level teachers in the school directly but, moving forward, will now also supervise the work of the other instructional coaches working in the building. This can be a great opportunity for Joe to showcase his leadership skills, especially if he should wish, one day, to pursue more senior leadership opportunities.
When Joe was appointed, I privately asked him and each of his colleagues, now subordinates, what talents they thought Joe would bring to the table in making the team more responsive to the needs of teachers and students but also where each felt Joe could continue to grow as a leader. Joe has a good sense of his strengths and opportunities for growth which was mirrored in my conversations with other instructional leadership team members. This is what I heard:
Joe knows instruction, is open to feedback, is process/impact-driven, and is data-informed. However, he can sometimes struggle in communicating hard messages – that do need to be surfaced – with kindness. Also, his instructional expertise and directive personality can blind him to the talents of others on the ILT team who are also self-directed and knowledgeable about instruction.
How should Joe lead this team? Let’s look at several leadership styles that Joe could adopt and determine which styles and/or styles in combination, make sense in his situation.
1. Autocratic Leadership: In this style, the leader has complete control over decision-making and closely supervises the work of their team members. They provide little room for input or collaboration from others and typically make decisions on their own.
Joe isn’t a tyrant; However, his can-do attitude and self-reliance can sometimes steer him into the dangerous shoals of autocratic leadership. His team was very clear that they are struggling for air and Joe’s insistence on participating in all team decisions has been stifling. Leaders should avoid this management style unless a school lacks competent educators, is failing, and/or is ready to close. Yes, leaders are appointed for their knowledge but that does not mean this expertise should blot out the light of others. Leaders can’t do everything, as much as they may think they can, and they will need others by their side to provide council even if that council is to be cautious in implementing what the leader wants to do.
2 – Democratic Leadership: Democratic leaders involve their team members in decision-making processes and value their input. They encourage collaboration, open communication, and participation from the team. The final decision is often made by the leader, but the leader considers the perspectives of others.
Given the abundance and diversity of teacher leadership in Joe’s school, his school can very much capitalize on this knowledge should Joe adopt a democratic approach to leadership. The ILT team has recognized and appreciated Joe’s attempts to move in a more democratic direction; they note Joe’s immediate shift in practice when he was informed that his leadership style has, in certain situations, not had the desired effect. Joe also asks team members to bring work and ideas to their weekly team meeting to discuss.
However, Joe’s questions and comments to team members are perceived as accusatorial rather than inquisitive. A case in point is when Joe recently told a team member that he was not happy that she missed a meeting rather than asking, first, if she was ok. Being a person of color, this instructional coach asked Joe to be mindful, as a Caucasian male, of how his demeanor may be perceived. Or, when Joe told team members that their work was not high quality rather than asking first if they thought that the team could improve upon this work in some way. The team has also felt Joe’s timelines for submitting work have not been realistic and that he should have a better sense of their individual responsibilities.
3 – Servant Leadership: Joe would do well to consider this approach when guiding his team. In servant leadership, such leaders prioritize the needs of their team members and focus on the best interests of the team. They emphasize empathy, active listening, and inquisitiveness, and support the personal and professional development of others.
As such, I recommended to Joe that he routinely ask the following questions of team members to support his development in this area:
- I just said X. How does that make you feel? What do you think about that?
- Tell me more about that?
- What should I start, stop, and/or continue doing in my leadership (coaching)?
- I hear you saying X. Is that correct?
- How can I support what you are doing this week?
- Are these demands reasonable (in terms of time, resources, knowledge, etc.)?
4 – Charismatic Leadership: Such leaders have a compelling vision and the ability to inspire and influence others through their charm, persuasion, and strong communication skills, and, related to this…
5 – Transformational Leadership: Transformational leaders motivate and inspire their team members by setting a compelling vision and encouraging personal growth and development. They lead by example.
Joe has this vision for instructional leadership in his school and is in the process of implementing this by shepherding his team through the process of strategic goal setting and use of specific processes and protocols – research/article review, role-playing, and problem of practice consultancies. Team members have stated that they do not doubt Joe’s intentions; They are with him. Leaders elsewhere might be envious of Joe having this level of pre-established buy-in from their teams.
Joe’s team wants him to be successful. As such, I recommended to him that he be transparent in expressing humility to his team as he leads by example practicing, modeling, and articulating the self-growth and reflection that he expects in others. This can only build trust in his team, as well as equity of individual voice on the team, and lead to transformational changes in teacher coaching through higher levels of team and teacher performance.
6 – Laissez-Faire Leadership: In this model, there is minimal interference from the leader, and team members have a high degree of autonomy. Team members often make their own decisions.
Although Joe can trust his team members to make many decisions independently and should be selective on which team decisions to be included, the school also needs clear systems to ensure that coaching practices are aligned horizontally across teacher content and grade teams. Laissez-faire leadership, therefore, can only work well up to a certain point in this school. There is a reason that Joe was appointed in this role; There are several new instructional coaches on the team who need his institutional and organizational knowledge as well as his guiding hand. However, I also encouraged Joe to see senior team members as “advisors” particularly because several of these colleagues have been rated highly by teachers for their level of empathy. Allow the experienced and self-directed a certain amount of autonomy. This is not just about developing others but also ensuring that Joe does not burn out.
Leadership styles can and should be fluid depending on the situation, the needs of the team, and the goals that the team is trying to achieve. Leadership is never easy, and Joe seemed relieved when I shared my own mistakes as a school administrator. However, I have high hopes for him. Joe’s openness and rapid response to feedback will illuminate his path toward more inclusive leadership practices.