Administrator or Leader?

I believe that each of us has a leader within and that educational leadership is not the sole domain of school administrators. I have seen classroom teachers step up and lead incredible school transformations without the authority of title or degree. But that is topic I will write about on another day.

Today, I want to examine the not so secret, ‘secret’ among educators:

While every school has at least one administrator, few have leaders.

A recent workshop participant paraphrased Peter Drucker and said it this way,

“Administrators do things right. Leaders do the right things.”

While that simple statement captures some of the gulf between leadership and administration, I think it falls far short.

I have a long list, developed over many educational leadership seminars, that outlines the differences between administrators and leaders; but today I will start with the one element that seems to encompass so many others…

Leaders deal from their hearts as well as their minds; administrators work almost exclusively from the mental framework.

We’ve all encountered administrators who kick off the school year with speeches stating the districts goals and objectives, or by reciting well meaning mission statements; but it is rare to find leaders who articulate a vision and inspire their staffs to embrace that vision.

Administrators are comfortable speaking from and appealing to the cognitive domain, hoping others see the logic of their goals and objectives; while leaders want to stir the hearts, as well as the minds of those they seek to lead.

It is the power of the heart that injects a special life into the team. Leaders who use their hearts and minds when they speak have an authenticity that creates trust. Administrators who speak only from their heads may say the right words; they may have perfect scripts; but they appear less authentic, less fully committed, and therefore they create less trust.

Without trust it’s difficult to lead effectively.

I remember the Principal at my son’s eighth grade graduation ceremony speaking to the audience of proud parents and students. His first words were,

“I can’t tell you how excited I am to be here with you tonight.”

Unfortunately, he spoke these words in a monotone with no emotion (heart). Even worse, there was no smile, no crack in his bland and blank façade. He continued this way through the entire speech.

While I have no doubt that deep inside he meant every word he spoke; because he closed off his heart when delivered his words, it destroyed his message. It reeked of an administrator fulfilling his job requirements, when it could have been a leader expressing gratitude to his victorious 8th grade troops and sending them off to the high school full of inspiration and hope.

Not every leader needs to be a charismatic speaker. Even speakers who speak haltingly and uncomfortably, if they speak from the heart, touch the hearts of those around them; their authenticity comes through and with that, trust flows. We feel their commitment.

One of the first steps in the transformation from administrator to leader is to access the power of the heart. Tapping into the heart shows up in every aspect of leadership, not just in speaking. It is a way of tethering ourselves to something deeper than just our ideas and thoughts. It ties us to our purpose, values, and beliefs.

When we work from this place, we are grounded. We don’t change directions every time the political breezes shift. We are more apt to go the extra mile, even if it seems risky. We walk our own talk. We don’t have hidden agendas, they’re all out there for people to see. When we work from the heart, we don’t make decisions based solely on complicated political calculations; but we factor in our beliefs and values.

Most importantly, when we are grounded in the heart, we have the courage of a leader. Interestingly, the word courage comes from the French root ‘cour’ or heart. As leaders we don’t avoid difficult conversations, or put off difficult decisions out of fear. We address them because they need to be addressed. The heart gives us the strength and passion to do the difficult things.

The transformation from administrator to leader is largely a journey of the heart.



9 thoughts on “Administrator or Leader?

  1. Great post! We have been talking for years about admnistrators needing to tell their “story”, sharing who they are, what they believe in, what are their non-negotiables, and what drives their behavior. You cannot tell a story that motivates and excites people if it does not come from the heart. Those that have embraced this need are experiencing succcess on their professional learning community journey.

  2. Peter,

    Have you read George Lakoff’s “Don’t Think of an Elephant?”
    One of the arguments he makes is that progressives tend to think that if they lay out their arguments logically, everyone will see that they are “right” and come over to their side. Instead, Lakoff gives many examples from politics where people vote for leaders who moved them emotionally, even though the candidate’s platform clearly isn’t in their best interest.

    It’s a very interesting book. I keep finding other places in life where the book’s principles seem to hold true.

  3. Pete,
    Another great post.
    Tomorrow is my first official day as an administrator. I’d like to think I’ve been a leader for a while now. I’ll keep your words in mind as I start this new journey.
    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

  4. Mike,
    I’m encouraged by your comment. I have seen so many programs for administrators that have “Leadership” in their titles and few of them even consider the importance of the ‘heart’ as the foundation of leadership.

    Most of them shy away from it because it isn’t ‘concrete’ enough for busy administrators who are looking for tips and techniques for managing their time or dealing with difficult employees.

    In fact, as you point out, nothing could be more practical and concrete.


  5. Susan,
    I haven’t read the book; but I have witnessed the effect in action. In fact, if you think about the Democratic primaries this year one of the turning points was in New Hampshire when Hillary Clinton began to tear up and her heart came to the surface.

    It was a very brief moment of heart and authenticity, yet it made such an impact on people that she was able to turn things around in the state.


  6. Pete, as the “recent workshop participant” you mention in this post, I had to chime in. I am delighted to have tossed in a tidbit that helped further this discussion. Your ideas on leadership, recognizing and accepting the leadership role all teachers play, are inspiring. Thanks for continuing to think and share. I hope to see you in person again soon.
    –Michael Steinberg

  7. Dear Pete:

    “Accessing the power of the heart” and all that implies. Took me a long time to get to a position of understanding. It helps when you have the opportunity to hire your own staff…

    Good luck, Michael.


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