The School Leadership Compass

Recently our school launched a new middle school leadership program. This meant we had to reflect on (1) what leadership is and (2) what values we want to nurture in our student leaders. Because great leadership requires the same skill set at all levels in school organization, thinking through how to teach leadership taught me some important lessons about how I want to practice leadership.

Leaders manage deadlines, problem-solve, and work collaboratively with teams of people, some of whom “push their buttons.” Given these demands, how can we make sure our leadership decisions are serving our school community?

The Leadership Compass

We need a well-calibrated leadership compass to point us in the right direction. Electronic compasses are calibrated using location data. This means we have to know where we are to make sense of where we are going. The same is true in leadership. What maps and data do we use to determine where we are?  And how do we chart our progress on going to where we want to go?

What do you base your leadership decisions on? Do you use test data, budget reality, or educational legislation? While standardized scores, funding, and state and federal mandates certainly matter in schools, they shouldn’t be the drivers of our decision-making. What if there was another way to calibrate your leadership compass, one that led to stronger communities, more creative solutions and didn’t compromise on achievement? What if the secret to success in our quantitative measures comes from first valuing qualitative factors?

Before we had digital compasses, our compasses were calibrated by the earth’s magnetic field. I think of this as our steady core values.

Calibrating Your Leadership Compass

A mentor once told me “There are two ways to lead. You can lead with fear or you can lead with love. Both work in the short-term, but only love works long-term.” While I recognized the wisdom in this idea, it wasn’t until I became a principal that I truly understood what she meant.

In thinking about how to calibrate your school leadership compass, love is a good place to start. From there, we can use our core values to give us more specific direction.

The following reflective questions can help us identify those values.

  • What qualities do you want to foster in your school or classroom?
  • What are your long-term goals as a school or class?
  • What are your school or class community’s greatest strengths?
  • What are the most important messages you want to communicate?

Your answers to these questions set your priorities. You can use them to choose the path that honors those qualities you want to foster, that helps your school continue in the direction of your goals, that plays to your communities’ strengths, and that communicates the values you hold. When faced with a tough decision, the leadership compass has yet to let me down. In fact, this model has positively altered how I think about student support, teacher autonomy, student-led initiatives, and second chances.

This all sounds pretty soft

I’ve been thinking about the theoretical tension between soft and hard approaches to leadership. The connotation seems to be that soft is calibrated with a concern for feelings, hard is calibrated with a concern for results, and these two are mutually exclusive. I disagree.  Leaders can be concerned with both feelings and achievement. It comes back to what we value and how we set our priorities.

By using the leadership compass, do I sometimes lean further to the side of generosity, connection, and community? Enthusiastically! Yet because I am basing my decisions on clear values I feel confident in most of the decisions I make. And typically our results bear this out. Our students are engaged in service, learning, and creating amazing work; our teachers are engaged in instruction, learning, and creative support models. Together, we are all rethinking leadership from a values-based approach.

To finish the metaphor, we are finding our way through a complex forest of demands, enthusiastically geocaching toward stronger and more effective learning communities.


Encouragingly, Dr. KFW