Four Leadership Styles to Avoid: Lessons Learned from Our Schools

August 8, 2018; Education Week

As teachers hustle to prepare for the start of another school year at a sometimes-frantic pace, Mary Alicia Lyons, a 25-year classroom veteran, reading specialist, and program administrator, writes in Education Week about the pivotal role of school administrators in setting the tone for a school, a district, its teachers, staff and its students and their achievement.

Lyons reflects upon 12 principals and many district administrators with a variety of styles and disparate impacts on the staffs they managed. Lyons points to four difficult administrative styles and four high-impact styles for schools, and it seems logical to carry these eight styles beyond the school buildings and into the nonprofit sector. Leadership is going to have an impact on the culture of an organization, whether the organization is a school, a small or large nonprofit or a corporation.

Four Difficult Administrative Styles

  1. Unrealistic and Out of Touch: Taking this style beyond the school, this could be the nonprofit administrator who never is out in the field but believes she knows what should be done to solve all issues. She has never seen a new initiative (especially one that comes with grant funds) that will not fit in and work. And she knows her “great staff” can make it fit with what they already do.
  2. “I Know Everything”: This leader is the partner of the out-of-touch administrator above. He or she doesn’t engage others in decision-making, relying solely on personal judgment for key decisions. Staff with strong content knowledge become alienated and often depart, leaving holes in areas where their knowledge is a key in making the organization function and the culture strong.
  3. The Bully: No one likes to be intimidated by their boss. Working for or with someone who plays favorites, bullies others, and creates a hostile work environment will not build an organizational culture that is helpful to staff or clients. This kind of leadership tends to drive staff away.
  4. “It’s for the Children”: As Lyons explains, “This person often justifies the decisions he makes by implying or stating they are based on what is best for students. The message is sent that alternate viewpoints have little or no value, leading teachers to feel like their input is not welcomed.” This same attitude can play out in the nonprofit sector from leadership that indicates a total focus on clients with little concern for those who service the clients, many of whom are not so far removed from the circumstances of the clients. Putting distance between leadership and staff by inserting the “best interest of the client” as the highest priority may stymie good ideas coming from others.

Moving to look at the positive side, Lyons shares four other leadership styles that have had a positive impact on school culture and teacher attitude and student outcomes.

  • Consider Others’ Opinions“The leader weighs staff input and is willing to make adjustments if something is not working.” In the nonprofit sector, having input from all areas of an organization affected by a change or program adds to the commitment and buy-in of staff and others. Adjusting programs based on experience makes the possibility of success much more realistic.
  • Plan Ahead: “Before implementing a new initiative, the leader considers what could present challenges. He consults with staff members that have relevant knowledge to consider angles he might not have considered.” Perhaps the most important question a leader might ask his or her staff is, “What have I forgotten?” Acknowledging that others may know things that he or she does not, brings everyone into ownership and allows for those with content expertise to truly stand out in areas where they can bring things to the table.
  • Be Empathetic: “The leader understands how demanding the job of teaching can be. She is an active listener who cares about staff members at a professional as well as a personal level.” Listening is a skill that is not always easy for leaders, but one that is well worth the practice. While it may not be possible to engage personally with every staff member, leaders can model taking a personal interest and showing others that they care about more than just getting a job done. Being approachable is a first-step to being empathetic.
  • Develop Talent: The leader values all staff members and recognizes the strengths they bring to the table. He works to build leadership capacity and expertise across the staff.” Leaders build leaders. Knowing the maintenance staff who go the extra mile to ensure a project is completed is demonstrating talent in the same way as a social worker who is managing a complex program is a sign of a leader who can then build out those very different talents. Knowing that there are opportunities for growth within an organization are a key part of its culture.

Organizational culture is a topic that frequents the nonprofit world. NPQ has written about it often, most recently last month in an article republished from July 2011 about why workplace culture matters to us so very much. The tone and feel of where we work—be it a school, a nonprofit, a Walmart, or a corporate office—influence how productive we are, and that productivity impacts others. Those who lead, whatever the organization, have a huge role to play in setting that tone for the organizational culture and should carry that responsibility with great care.—Carole Levine