Saturday, February 14, 2015

Is Leadership Style Born...or Made?

This post originally ran as a Guest Blog in EdWeek Teacher on 2/13/15.

Is Leadership style “born” or is it “made”? This is a question that has always challenged me: first, as a classroom teacher, and today, as school leader.

Remember that first “big break” as an educator?

Mine came in the latter part of the 20th Century. I’ll never forget my first classroom, set in a portable building, away from the main school building. Bearing a strong resemblance to a one-room schoolhouse, in all honesty, it was aesthetically unspectacular. The building’s exterior was grey and drab. And the interior had paneling walls that had yellowed, and a subtle musty odor that was more pronounced on rainy days. Anyone who didn’t know might suspect from the outside that it was an equipment storage space.

But what happened inside…that was pure magic. That classroom was where children came to exceed their potential and their expectations they had…of themselves. And every day, I held myself responsible for designing conditions to promote opportunities for their success.

Roughly a decade after I got my start, my first classroom was leveled by a bulldozer. A scrap of materials from a half century prior lie in a pile of unrecognizable rubble. It was cleared, as was a path...a path, for progress.

A brand new, state-of-the-art middle school was built in its place. And the office of the middle school principal is within steps of where my first classroom once stood.

Today, that’s my office.

I pause often, appreciating that my life’s work as an educator feels serendipitous. To this day, my core values as a learning leader are not far off from my first year as a classroom teacher. Thanks to a room full of children and now, a school community, these five values have shaped my leadership style:

  1. See people as they are, but also how they can be. The best classroom teachers and school leaders are perceptive. They have a heightened sense and ability to simultaneously identify strengths, assess and target needs, and draw out potential in individuals and in groups of people. If you’ve ever taught a student to read, you can relate to the elation associated with this feeling. If you’ve ever coached teachers on improving classroom management, lesson design, or how to engage students at a high level, you understand this.
  2. Connect the dots. Having the ability to see a “big picture” view provides school leaders and classroom teachers with limitless opportunities to create conditions for success. Beginning with the end in mind, we can pursue goals for sustained incremental improvement that are one, three, and five steps ahead. The most insightful classroom teachers design lessons or units with intentionality, empowering students to take the reins on their own learning. For school leaders, our best work comes as a result of being purposeful. Empowering teachers to work collaboratively builds successful initiatives, productive teams, and new partnerships. It also maximizes results for the greatest number of learners possible.   
  3. Rise to the Challenge, together. Preparing children to succeed as lifelong learners, done right, is hard work. A learning organization cannot, and will not thrive if its members work in isolation. Educators must deliberately reach out, relentlessly connect, and offer and seek support, for students, families, one another, and to our communities.
  4. Pay It Forward. The best educators remember where they’ve come from. That first “big break” continues to drive their daily work. They think, “What better way to honor my past and cherish my legacy, than to approach each day with a sense of obligation?” We owe it to our profession, our learning organizations, and our communities to do as much (and more) for others as was done for us.
  5. Approach learning with an open mind, every day. In life and in education, we must always remember, we are learners first. An educator’s experience, habits, routines, and instincts are paramount to fostering a productive classroom climate. But having the courage to embrace a “learner-mindset” shows all learners that improvement and growth is personal, individualized, and that it’s never-ending.      

So, is Leadership style “born” or is it “made”? My answer is…I don’t know.

What I do know is that the best educators have always understood the obligation we have: to celebrate schools, showcase teamwork, and elevate all learners. How we approach this is what defines our leadership.

For me, one thing’s for certain. That first experience, in my first classroom proves we can never predict and should never put a ceiling on how things may turn out.


  1. Dennis, your words really resonate with me and the leader I strive to be. Each of the 5 points you mention are so important, and I love how you remind us to remember where we started and our journey. Born or made? Maybe a little of both... Maybe there is something there to start with that gets shaped.

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  3. Dennis,
    As always your words speak from the heart with a deeply honest and reflective approach. Posing the question," is leadership style born or made' and leading the reader through your journey and thought process kept your blog lively and engaging. Good work, my friend. Love the fact that you are there for all of your students!