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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Want to be a better leader?

Pamela Macklin
Deputy Chief Executive Officer, Curriculum Corporation

What do education leaders need more of in our current environment to make them more effective? To paraphrase Richard Elmore, the challenge of harnessing leadership to the problem of large scale improvement is ‘learning how to do new things and, perhaps more importantly, learning to attach positive value to the learning of doing of new things’.

Here are five new things to do if we are to meet our leadership challenges.

1. Leaders must be angry.

My first new leadership rule is perhaps slightly unconventional. To be a great leader, you probably should spend quite a bit of time being angry.

Whether in business, the community or education, many of the great inspirational leaders are completely dissatisfied with mediocrity, injustice, poor performance or dysfunction in their environment. What sets them apart from lesser leadership candidates is that they capitalise on their anger in a positive way.

I’m sure we can all think of great leaders who are outstanding at being angry and following through by doing something about it. Anger doesn’t translate to aggressive behaviour. Great leaders, such as Nelson Mandela, harness and use their anger to inspire others and produce positive social outcomes. But we don’t all have to be Mandela.

Chris Sarra is a great local practical example of rule 1. Chris was so angry about the poor life chances and achievements of Indigenous students, he took radical action and inspired others to take radical action to improve learning, teaching and community life at Cherbourg in Queensland. Chris is amazed that there is a culture of tolerating outcomes for Aboriginal students that are completely unacceptable and wouldn’t be tolerated for non-Aboriginal kids.

Great leaders aren’t satisfied with mediocrity or second best. They have a sense of urgency that inspires them and others to improve the achievements of those around them. So, if you have a tendency towards too much complacency and self-satisfaction, you’re probably not great leadership material.

2. Leaders must unleash passion.

Again, this may appear a little unconventional, or perhaps even worrying. Passion is a concern to some people, because it seems a bit too affective or personality-based to be achievable, and is perhaps difficult to teach.

But if you care deeply about education and want to achieve great results, you do have an underlying passion for teaching and learning. And the research tells us that such a passion must be demonstrated to support a high-achieving climate.

But there’s another equally important angle to this passion thing. Some of the best principals I’ve ever seen have the gift of encouraging teachers to indulge their passions in the course of their teaching where they know that it will not only enthuse, but improve student learning as well. Such principals are not threatened by people working in ways that are slightly outside the mainstream and indulging their creativity. They know that being driven to learn by the passionate pursuit of an interest can be contagious and stimulating.

3. Leaders must be tough performance managers.

Creating the environment in which people can be their best is one of the most important tasks of the leader. Effective teachers can have a much greater impact on student achievement than previously thought.

More than one school I’ve visited recently put it in terms of ‘making teachers’ lives easier’ – freeing teachers from as many administrative and organisational tasks as possible, so they can focus on the core business of teaching. That’s very important.

But leaders have to be very tough about performance management to achieve great results. That doesn’t necessarily mean being punitive and critical. More importantly, principals have to be tough on themselves, and strive hard to develop the key emotional intelligence (EI) attributes – self-awareness, self-management and social awareness.

This has not yet been widely embraced by the education community, but developing EI skills is essential for leaders who need to improve the performance of their staff by having the most effective professional relationship with them.

Such an effective relationship includes being clear about goals and responsibilities, identifying strengths and weaknesses, working with teachers to identify ways to improve performance, giving regular feedback, providing internal and external professional learning opportunities, and not accepting poor performance. Performance management is hard work, time-consuming and something many people would rather avoid. If you can’t do it well, however, you probably shouldn’t be running a school, or anything else for that matter.

4. Leaders must be Pollyannas.

Forget about those fairly uninspiring assertions that principals must have a good sense of humour and stay calm when confronted with difficulties. I know a lot of calm people who have a good sense of humour, but they couldn’t lead a bunch of teachers to the pub on a Friday night.

The Pollyanna rule is that leaders must be able to energise others with their boundless optimism and high expectations, which more often than not becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Optimistic leaders retain a positive viewpoint almost all of the time and can be relied on to put an ‘opportunity’ spin on anything that happens, and are highly adaptive.

Relentless optimism is essential to lead people in an environment which is complex, dynamic and requires us to be continually adaptive. Such leaders have confidence, tenacity, see challenges as problems to be solved and get on with the job.

Tom Peters puts a related point in a really simple way: ‘Leaders show up’. Leaders are there. They keep on keeping on. By their very presence, they inspire others to stay the course. He cites Rudi Giuliani who ‘showed up’ when it really mattered, on 9/11. As one wag put it, he went from lame-duck philandering husband to Time magazine’s man of the year in 117 days. How? Not through his strategy, but by showing his face. By standing as the embodiment of Manhattan’s indomitable spirit. Many successful school principals have long practised the art of ‘management by walking around’.

Leaders must be there for people, and be so relentlessly optimistic and positive that they need to be hosed down regularly. The ripple effect of such optimism is a very powerful driver of improvement.

5. Leaders must have strength of character.

Leaders don’t have to be charismatic. We don’t have to look too far in Australian public life to see that many of the powerful people in our society are indeed a charm-free zone. However, even a dull person can lead well if they are able to convey a strong moral purpose and an unwavering attachment to a strong set of values and beliefs.

The phrase ‘walk the talk’ is a bit overused, but it encapsulates neatly what is important for leaders to do. For leaders to be seen as honest, trustworthy, having integrity and all the other attributes that are a must for any worthy leader, they can’t be making pronouncements from their desk.

They must demonstrate the way in which they live by these values in all their interactions with members of the school community. Leaders are also the ones that make the tough decisions that are not always popular. This can be hard work and it also requires large amounts of emotional intelligence, particularly the capacity to be reflective, self-aware and consciously manage self-development.

We must focus on leadership for the future. If we build on the old wisdom, along with the energetic application of these five new leadership rules, we’ll have a much greater chance of achieving success for our students.

As successful leaders know, ‘Leadership is the art of accomplishing more than the science of management says is possible’.


Elmore, Richard F (2000). Building a New Structure for School Leadership, Albert Shanker Institute.

Peters, Tom (2003). Re-imagine! Business Excellence in a Disruptive Age, Dorling Kindersley Ltd.  

This article was first published in EQ Australia Autumn 2005.

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