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Six Highly Effective Education Leadership Styles

July 12, 2019

When it comes to leadership styles in education, there’s no one right approach. Effective education leadership means adapting one’s leadership style to suit a situation. An advanced degree in education, such as a Doctorate in Education (EdD), is an excellent way for educators to learn various leadership styles that can make them more effective leaders in different classroom settings and beyond—as a dean, school district superintendent, or university president, for example.

As ASCD highlights, leaders such as school principals are key agents of change in their schools. To be effective, they must ground their leadership in a moral purpose, an understanding of the nature of change, an environment of knowledge and sharing, an investment in relationships, and a dedication to creating coherence. But does someone in a leadership position know how to effect positive change in specific circumstances?

The National College for Teaching and Leadership (NCTL), a former government agency in the United Kingdom with a focus on academic improvement and interscholastic cooperation, developed the Advanced Diploma of School Business Management (ADSBM) to help education administrators improve their leadership skills. The ADSBM identified six different leadership styles that can be highly effective, though several can have negative consequences if deployed incorrectly.

Try Coercive Leadership with Caution

In general, the modern education system is not conducive to overbearing leaders. Most individuals in a leadership position will get good results when they listen to and rely on the staff rather than make demands. In certain circumstances, however, coercive leadership is necessary—mostly in cases of emergency, when immediate action is critical. In an emergency, the leader can inform his or her team that there is a single acceptable course of action, with the understanding that should the situation not improve quickly, the responsibility lies with that leader. But, the NCTL warns, the overall impact on the work climate will be negative, and it’s not an effective long-term management option due to its inflexibility, which can sap employees’ motivation and drive. Some find that the coercive method doesn’t instill much sense of ownership or responsibility in employees. In turn, it leaves little room for creativity and innovation.

Example: Following a major scandal involving the dean of admissions’ falsifying federal data, a university cleans house and brings in an interim dean to sort out the mess. The interim dean immediately implements strict procedures that create extra work for the admissions department in an attempt to restore trust in the system. The cost? Overworked employees and lowered morale.

Act Authoritatively

Strong leaders who understand the difference between demanding compliance and encouraging teams to pursue a common goal often garner respect for their authoritative leadership style, which the NCTL points out can be the most effective leadership style in education. Education leaders who use the authoritative leadership style most effectively are those with expertise that others lack. They may have an EdD or a plethora of experience, for example, and can command respect when their background immediately benefits the institution. Authoritative leaders present a clear, confident picture of what they can achieve, and they know how to inspire the staff to work toward those goals. The authoritative leadership style can backfire, the NCTL notes, when team members have a similar level of education and experience as their leader, as they might not readily follow someone they consider their peer.

Example: A school district hires a new superintendent with an advanced degree and decades of experience. The superintendent, based on her experience, immediately sets lofty academic goals the previous, less experienced superintendent had not. She inspires confidence within the district that everyone can meet her raised standards within the proposed time frame.

Stay Affiliative

The affiliative style of leadership puts people first. It’s a smart approach for most situations because people appreciate feeling valued and heard. Moreover, workplace morale is especially important in education, which relies on faculty and staff communicating directly and effectively with students and parents. Affiliative leadership, which focuses on unity, empathy, and communication, is the opposite of coercive leadership. The only clear pitfall of this style is that it can erroneously communicate to employees whose performance is mediocre that they’re doing well.

Example: The new principal at an elementary school notices that the previous leader left his teachers feeling replaceable and unmotivated. The new principal establishes a policy of meeting with teachers individually once a month for a half-hour. During these meetings, he listens to their unique concerns and problems and aims to provide specific guidance and solutions.

Be Democratic

In a setting full of competent employees, smart leaders give power to the people. They maintain control while allowing plenty of room for change and adaptation. The democratic style of leadership relies heavily on input from the education team. By seeking feedback from colleagues, democratic leaders ensure everybody takes ownership for decision-making and success. This leadership style can significantly boost morale. Democratic leaders must balance this benefit with the potential pitfall of slowing down progress due to an increase in meetings and debates over minor issues.

Example: An unpopular college dean has left morale low among tenured professors who felt their voices were not valued. The new dean institutes biweekly staff meetings and a faculty committee that can vote on new rules and regulations.

Pursue Pacesetting

For education leaders in charge of a team of skilled, motivated, passionate professionals, the task is simple: set a high bar for competency and productivity across the board, and the rest will follow. This leadership style, known as pacesetting, requires a driven leader who sets the tone with his or her own work ethic. Instead of making demands, the leader communicates expectations by example. Pacesetting can lead to burnout, so it’s an approach leaders should use only every so often, under appropriate circumstances.

Example: A research professor takes over a laboratory filled with passionate, excited students and professors conducting important research in their field. The new leader says he expects the research findings to be published in a major research journal—a feasible goal given the dedication of the team.

Implement Coaching

The coaching style of leadership requires time, but it can result in significant long-term gains. Capable and effective coaches show underperforming employees the skills to be successful, giving individualized feedback and staying empathetic toward educators’ needs. In time, these employees can improve their job performance. However, because this style requires a highly capable leader who is willing to work with struggling employees for a significant length of time, the NCTL says it is used the least.

Example: A principal, upon starting a new job at a middle school, realizes several longtime teachers are struggling to adapt to new state standards. Rather than fire them and lower morale across the school, the principal decides to meet regularly with each of them, providing one-on-one support to ensure they keep up with current standards. The principal also works with new teachers, sitting in on classes and giving in-depth feedback.

Learn More about Effective Education Leadership

Becoming a stronger education leader is a worthy goal, as effective leadership positively affects teacher job satisfaction and, ultimately, student performance. Education Week notes that leaders indirectly—but significantly—impact student outcomes when they ensure faculty members have access to the resources to meet the demands of their work, provide direction and vision for the school, and offer professional development opportunities for teachers.

Moreover, Forbes notes that effective education leaders acknowledge the existence of disadvantaged populations in education systems, while also showing this doesn’t have to be a barrier to success. They leverage testing when necessary to understand opportunities for improvement within the school, evaluate their own performance, and view all stakeholders as partners.

Professionals with an EdD or similar advanced degree understand the need to adapt leadership styles in education to various situations. An award-winning program such as American University’s online Doctorate in Education can equip you with the tools necessary to thrive as an education leader in any scenario. Learn more and apply today.