This semester, our students, funded by a state grant, have been asked to focus on the knotty term “leadership,” as in “teacher leader.” It’s one of those topics we all think we know a lot about, and in a way, we do. We can certainly recognize the broad outlines of it, but the specifics are more elusive. To find the latest answers, we’ve gone “in search of excellence,” we’ve asked moving questions, and recently it seems as if we are all “leaning in” to get the one real answer. It can be overwhelming. There seem to be as many definitions of leadership as there are consultants selling their books. My favorite definition is Max DePree’s classic notion of what works. He sums it up like this, “The first responsibility of the leader is to define reality. The last is to say ‘thank you!’ In between the two, the leader must become a servant . . .” (11).
But like most really important questions, real satisfying answers are not likely on the bookshelf, but deep inside each of us. Good books just tell us where to look. After all, most of us have at some point in our lives been on both sides of the leadership equation—leading and following. We certainly have valid stories to tell. While these anecdotal experiences are notoriously unreliable, they can still be helpful in building a first-person understanding of the mysterious position of “learning leader” that a teacher is thrust into.
Inescapably, teachers are professional leaders. Consequently, “What works?” is more than a passing question. Careers are built and lost on the answer. What we know is that there is no standard profile. Effective learning leaders come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, demeanors, and characters. Like good leaders in every field, they are old and young, tall and short, women and men. Some are loud and boisterous; others are quiet and reserved. Some are funny, while others could never be. Some wear track suits while others would never show up without a tie. Finding a common denominator for these dedicated men and women is not easy.
What real leaders are appears to be more important than their physical description.