The idea of developing leadership qualities in students reminds me of the days when I was a fresh-faced college student and well-meaning relatives would ask what I planned to do after graduation. “I’m thinking about law school,” I’d reply, which was preferable to telling them the truth, which was: “I have absolutely no clue.”
I thought of that experience while preparing this blog post because I think schools often do the same thing. When asked about their mission, our schools’ version of “law school” is to reply: “We’re developing leaders.” Unfortunately, despite our best intentions, the idea that schools are in the business of developing leaders has almost become a cliché.
So where does that leave us in discussing the best ways to bring out leadership qualities in our students? I’ve identified several qualities that we attribute to “leaders” (though in reality they simply illustrate the traits we want to see in decent, contributing members of society). Here are four traits that are common among leaders that we should encourage in all of our students:
Leaders are communicators
The ability to listen, understand and speak clearly is an essential core skill. While the popular concept of a leader is somebody who can bark out orders at a moment’s notice (think of any ship commander in a movie), the abilities to carefully listen to what is being said, discern what is essential and not essential to the problem at hand and communicate the next step are key attributes of leaders.
Leaders weigh many perspectives
Leaders can see all sides of an issue, compare the many opinions at hand, draw upon their personal priorities and base their decisions upon all the data. The trick though is to not get caught up in the phenomenon of “paralysis by analysis,” frozen by the abundance of options. Rather, the leader weighs all the facts and acts with conviction when the time comes.
Leaders anticipate future needs
While leaders must be able to act quickly in rapidly changing situations, they also have to be mindful of situations that arise over time. Great leaders see developing patterns, prepare for all eventualities and respond appropriately. The work of the leader isn’t always making the immediate decision; it’s laying the groundwork for making the right call when things turn either for or against the organization.
Leaders think strategically
The final point actually comes from the great TV show “The West Wing.” President Jed Bartlet is going back and forth between two concurrent chess games and during one game encourages his young speechwriter Sam Seaborn to “look at the whole board.” This exchange personifies the need for the leader, or any engaged citizen, to look at the entire situation and see it for what it is and for what it could be.
Listening well, seeing all sides of an issue, reacting quickly and thinking strategically should not only be the domain of the leader, but instead should be fostered in all of our students if we want them to become useful and productive members of our democratic society.
An educator for two decades, Brian P. Gatens is superintendent/principal at Norwood Public School in Norwood, N.J. Gatens has worked at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. He has been a classroom teacher, vice principal, principal and now superintendent/principal.
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- "Look at the Whole World," YouTube