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Are Teachers Really Leaders in Disguise?

How are the best teachers like the best leaders?

Research has clearly told us the leadership qualities and behaviors that are most effective. We know very well what distinguishes good leaders from mediocre and bad leaders. But a question that often arises is whether or not teachers (from elementary school through college) are actually "leaders." I'm going to stop short of saying "yes," because we tend to use the term "leader" too broadly already. What I can say definitively, however, is that the very best teachers behave very much like the very best leaders. In other words, successful teachers are very much like successful leaders - they both engage in transformational behaviors.

Transformational leadership is the most popular theory today. It consists of four key components. Let's look at how outstanding teachers - we will call them "transformational teachers" - display these four key elements.

Idealized Influence. Successful leaders are positive role models for followers. Followers of transformational leaders admire their leaders and try to emulate their positive and authentic behavior. So too, transformational teachers are much admired by their students. A common reason given for pursuing a teaching career is being impressed by a transformational teacher and desiring to follow in his or her footsteps.

Inspirational Motivation. Transformational teachers, like transformational leaders, are positive and inspirational. They are enthusiastic about what they are doing and that enthusiasm infects their students. Students are motivated to work hard. My daughter's 4th grade teacher personified this element of transformational teaching/leading. He was lively, sang to the kids, and on school outings, he looked like he was having the most fun of all.

Individualized Consideration. This element is one of the strongest drivers of transformational leadership, and the same is true for transformational teaching. It involves the leader, or teacher, being attuned to the individual needs of each follower/student. It is a genuine concern for what each person needs to develop fully. Individually considerate teachers coach and mentor each student, providing that individual attention that helps the student succeed.

Intellectual Stimulation. Perhaps this element is even more important for teachers than for leaders; it involves challenging students/followers to engage their minds and to think creatively. The very best teachers get students to think about things in new ways, and challenge them to greater intellectual achievements. They encourage creative and novel thinking, rather than discouraging it.

So, the theory of transformational leadership seems to apply very well to teachers. We know for sure that outstanding teachers, whether or not they are actually "leaders," play a key role in the development of future leaders.