Discussion of effective leadership is everywhere – in books, at webinars and conferences, as the topic of TV talk shows. But what is great leadership really all about, and how does that translate to schools? Do the “experts” giving tips on how to be an effective leader, whether in the boardroom or the classroom, really have something entirely new to say?

Odds are, no, not really. Most of it has been said before. What matters is whether it’s presented in a way that makes sense to you, and can be translated into tactics you can implement. As the leader in your school community, how do you mentor your staff so that they can then groom the next generation of leaders in our classrooms?


Characteristics of Great Leaders

No matter the experience or accomplishments of your team, it is always essential to start with a clear understanding of the basics. What do great leaders do?

  • Great leaders must provide a clear vision of the goal the team or community is to achieve—and articulate it clearly to build consensus. Walt Disney, our founder, had a very clear vision of what we could become, and he was able to build consensus, both inside our company and in the marketplace. What is your vision for your school community? How do you build consensus?
  • For great leaders, having and sharing a vision does not include dictating exactly how the team will achieve it. Exemplary leaders recognize the skills and knowledge of the people on their team, and they trust these people to develop the right processes to achieve success. As Walt said, “Of all the things I have done, the most vital is coordinating the talents of those who work for us and pointing them towards a certain goal.” Do you have an environment of trust within your school community?
  • Great leaders ensure their team members have all the necessary training and development to be able to deliver their vision. Allowing the people working under them to be creative and innovative, and even fail in small ways, supports continual growth and success. Great leaders understand that the learning journey is as valuable as the learning outcome.


Communicating Your Vision

Excellent communication skills are at the core of everything a great leader does. How well would you say you communicate? What would others say about your communication skills?

  • We’ve all heard the numbers—over 90% of our communication is nonverbal. Good leaders take the time to examine their body language and vocal qualities, making sure those are in support of the intent of the message. How we interact with our listeners is critical—making eye contact and having appropriate posture and facial expressions tells your staff that you are focused on them, that you believe they are important. On the other hand, a great leader also learns to read the body language of those working for him or her, as that can tell them a lot about the level of understanding and acceptance of the message. Do you know what nonverbal message you are sending?
  • Understanding the concept of “noise” is a critical tool for great leaders. When you are preparing a message to share with those in your school community, or when others are trying to communicate something to you, many factors affect the effectiveness of that communication. A good general term for all of that is “noise,” which refers to anything, internal and external that prevents you from fully focusing on the message. You might have something else on your mind that is distracting you, or you may need to address problems or issues in your relationship with those you are communicating with. What other sources of “noise” can you think of? And how can you control the “noise”? That is the important piece that you must figure out to communicate effectively!
  • With well over 70,000 cast members in Walt Disney World alone, Disney leaders, knowing that they are leading a very diverse team, have learned to check for understanding using a variety of methods. It will be the same for school leaders. How often have you asked, “Does everyone understand?” or “Does anyone have any questions?” What was the response? Lots of people nodding their heads and smiling? Does that mean understanding has occurred? Very often, it does not. Effective leaders know a variety of options to use when checking for understanding. These include having team members brainstorm at least three points that have been made and then share out with the larger group, or having members form small groups and identify three roadblocks to effective communication in their workplace and strategies to overcome each one.

To be a great leader that others will want to follow, one must have depth of knowledge and many different skills. How do you acquire this? It starts with introspection and self-awareness: Where are you on the learning/development journey? What is your next step? What are your resources to evaluate your current skill level, and who and what is available to help you continue on your journey? And it is a continuous journey—a great leader is never done learning, never content with his or her current skills. You must have the drive for excellence in everything you do, including how you relate to and lead others. 

In Walt’s view: “Courage is the main quality of leadership, no matter where it is exercised. Usually it implies some risk—especially in new undertakings. Courage to initiate something and keep it going [and a] pioneering and adventurous spirit to blaze new ways….”