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Courageous School Leaders Needed More Than Ever

June 26, 2009 By Nicholas J. Miller, Associate Professor & Educational Administration, St. Cloud State University

Part of our Education Essay Series

As a former high school principal and now a trainer of future school leaders, I have come to realize how essential it is for principals and administrators to embrace with courage the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead in public education.

Whenever my students are asked to describe strong and effective leaders the following adjectives are most frequently mentioned: loyalty, integrity, honesty, intelligence, understanding, and tolerance.  One word that very seldom makes the list is courage. Yet in these difficult times, the discussion among my fellow department members usually leads us to identify courage as the most important quality that distinguishes great leaders. So why does courage seem to be such an obvious attribute for school leaders and why is it needed more than ever?

I have had the opportunity to work with many effective school leaders in Minnesota and I have seen them face difficult issues that require a great deal of courage. It takes a courageous leader to not only develop a clear and understandable vision and mission but also to live it on a daily basis. Leaders must direct resources and energy to accomplish the identified goals. It is easy to stray from the mission or just put it on the shelf. Courageous leaders make decisions that align with their school plan.

Education expert Mike Schmoker in Results Now talks about how school leaders of past generations were often recognized as successful principals when they served as "buffers" to insulate public criticism of their schools. He goes on to challenge leaders to demand the best from ourselves and others. Courageous leaders challenge their staffs and ask the hard questions. Are our students learning? How do we know?

Strong classroom performance requires holding students to high expectations and focuses them on critical reading, writing, and discussion. It is imperative that principals evaluate classroom instruction respectfully yet demand a high level of performance from each instructor. We must focus not only on the quality of teaching but also on the quality of student learning. Courageous leaders always put students first, even if it makes some uncomfortable.

Courageous leaders embrace diversity and welcome the opportunities that it brings. These leaders stand up for all students even when there is outside pressure to give in. These leaders build a culture of tolerance that becomes the climate of the building. Their goal is that every student who enters the building feels loved, respected and confident that he or she has a special place in the school. Courageous leaders, even in the face of public pressure, have the strength to defend and respect all students no matter their socioeconomic status, color, sexual preference, disability, or personality. Leaders who model this genuine acceptance of all students gain the respect of the entire school community.

Courageous leaders do not make excuses even in this time of limited financial resources. They exhaust all means to provide for their students. They work hard in the community to build strong relationships with business. They use every opportunity to spread the good news. Daniel Pink in his book A Whole New Mind dedicates a chapter to the power of story. We need to have the courage to tell everyone who will listen the great stories that take place in our schools. A powerful story will have a more lasting effect than raw data and test scores. We have a great story to tell.

Courageous leaders tell the truth even when it is unpopular. They make the hard decision when it is the right one. They treat students fairly and respectfully. Strong leaders make the students the focus even when it makes some adults uncomfortable or angry. Courageous leaders terminate incompetent people because it is the right thing to do for students. Effective leaders not only identify strong staff members but they also have the courage to invite disagreement. Courageous leaders surround themselves with bright people who are not afraid to challenge the status quo. Successful leaders are constantly analyzing the entire landscape of their school and its programs.

Successful leaders continually demonstrate how important it is to face school issues with integrity and courage. I am very impressed with the many school leaders I see who lead with courage. In this time of limited resources and increased accountability, it requires that the next generation have a clear understanding of the pressures and challenges that lie ahead. I encourage each of you to rethink the attributes that have often identified strong leaders and consider the importance that courage plays in the life of a school leader.

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