What it Means to Be a True Leader


What is true leadership? Many times, when you come across the word leader you see the word follower aligned in some way.  Leadership is not about attracting others to follow. This conveys a sense of power, authority, and control that might serve well in the short term by getting others to fall into line through conformity, but it doesn’t create the conditions necessary for sustaining change.   The definition and resulting perception of the term leader needs a makeover.

Great leaders don’t tell people what to do, but instead take them to where they need to be. There is no agenda to create a group of followers or disciples.  True leaders know that their success is intimately tied to the work of the collective. One person doesn’t win a war, election, or football game.  It is a team approach where each person in the organization knows that he or she has an important role to play. It can be said with certainty that one person doesn’t single handedly build a successful business. This same principle definitely applies to schools and districts.  Leadership is all about action not position or title.

Titles, at times, can be squandered, resulting in lost opportunities to transform organizations in positive ways.  Those referred to as leaders, but lack the qualities that make them successful, can sometimes exhibit characteristics such as egos, power trips, taking credit for the work of others, handing down mandates/directives, invisibility (i.e. never seen or around when needed), and insecurity when their ideas are challenged out in the open. They commonly tell others what to do without having done it themselves or assisting in the process.  Changes that are implemented by these types of leaders are never sustained. However, even those leaders that exhibit these traits have the ability and power to inhibit the changes that are desperately needed.

Some of the best leaders in education never had a title.   What they did have was the tenacity to act on a bold vision for change to improve learning for kids as well as overall school culture.  These people are overlooked because they don’t possess the necessary title that is used to describe a leader in a traditional sense.

“The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things.”  – Ronald Reagan

Make no mistake about the fact that many of you are surrounded by these people each day both physically and virtually. They are teachers, students, parents, and even administrators who have all taken action to initiate meaningful change in their classrooms or schools. These people don’t just talk the talk, but they walk the walk. They lead by example in what might be the most impactful way possible – modeling. These true leaders do not expect others to do what they are not willing to do. The best part is that these unsung heroes do not need a title to make a difference. They also don’t need a title to be agents of change.

In Learning Transformed: 8 Keys to Designing Tomorrow’s Schools, Today we state that leadership and culture lay the foundation for change.  A vast amount of research supports this claim. To further begin the process of redefining the term leader we suggest using this acronym we outline in our book. The best leaders do the following on a consistent basis:


Learn – Learning is the work. Great leaders take professional growth seriously as they know there is no perfection in any position, just daily improvement. Leaders make the time to learn and get better on a daily basis. They also make their learning visible to inspire others to follow suit. Leaders who love their work are always learning.

Empower – A key element of effective leadership is to empower others to take risks, remove the fear of failure, and grant autonomy to innovate.  People that are empowered find greater value in the work they are engaged in. Empowerment leads to respect and trust, which builds powerful relationships where everyone is focused on attaining specified goals.

Adapt – Everything can change in a heartbeat.  As such, leaders must embrace a sense of flexibility and openness to change accordingly in certain cases. The ability to adapt to an array of situations, challenges, and pressures are pivotal to accomplish goals. Success in life is intimately intertwined into an organism’s ability to adapt in order to survive. As leaders adapt they evolve into better leaders.

Delegate – No leader can do everything by him or herself. The decisiveness to delegate certain tasks and responsibilities is not a weakness. On the contrary, it allows leaders to apply more focus to areas of greater importance.  It also builds confidence in others in their ability as co-leaders of an organization even if they don’t have a fancy title.

Engage – In the sharing economy there might not be anything more important than information. Leaders understand this fact and develop strategies to authentically engage their stakeholders through multi-dimensional communications, by taking control of public relations, and developing a positive brand presence. Increased engagement results by meeting stakeholders where they are at, encouraging two-way communications, and becoming the storyteller-in-chief.

Reflect – It is quite difficult to find a great leader who does not reflect daily on his or her work.  Reflection in a digital world can take many forms and results in greater transparency. It is not how one chooses to reflect, but an emphasis to integrate this process consistently that defines a great leader.

Serve – It’s not just what you say, but more importantly what you do.  The most effective leaders work tirelessly to meet the needs of others while building them up in the process. They make it clear that it is not about them. Serving others taps into one’s heart and soul. It is in the moment of service to others that true leaders rise up in classrooms, schools, and districts.

The perception of the term leader needs to change, and it begins with you regardless of your position. Herein lies the first key in transforming learning for all kids. Never underestimate the power that you have. You are part of the solution!

The authors of this piece will be attending ASCD’s Empower18 Conference. You can sign-up to attend the conference here.

Thomas C. Murray serves as the Director of Innovation for Future Ready Schools, a Project of the Alliance for Excellent Education. He works alongside Congress and the US Senate, the White House, the US Department of Education and others to implement student-centered, personalized learning. Murray serves as a regular conference keynote, was named the “2017 Education Thought Leader of the Year,” one of “20 to Watch” by NSBA, the “Education Policy Person of the Year” by the Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2015.

Eric Sheninger is a Senior Fellow and Thought Leader on Digital Leadership & Learning with the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE). Prior to this, he was the award-winning Principal at New Milford High School. Eric oversaw the successful implementation of several sustainable change initiatives that radically transformed the learning culture at his school while increasing achievement.