Leadership in Education

by  Dr. Don Olcott, Jr., FRSA*
From Bucharest to Athens and Beyond:
The New Global-Local Normal & Lessons for 21st Century Leaders


Good judgment comes from experience and a lot of
that comes from poor judgment. 
Will Rogers

Indeed, as I considered a theme for this essay it was increasingly clear that another literature review of fifty years of leadership and management research would make a terrific digital remedy for insomnia; however, it would provide little to illuminate the reader about 21st century leadership challenges. Most western scholars would agree that the leading theorists have given us the theoretical and practical foundations for understanding leadership and management in the 20th century.   Moreover, most observers likely agree that most of the leadership-management literature presents an English, male, western-centric view of leadership – perhaps even a U.S. dominate view of leadership that is not representative of the multi-cultural, global world of 2017.  The most important question is what have we learned from practice about leadership that can help us lead our schools and universities better in the 21st century?    

The theme of this editorial argues that we are in a new global environment with new markets, shifting power and economic relationships and in need of a complete rethinking of leadership approaches for thriving in this new normal.  And, in our fundamental challenge to rethink approaches to leadership within the context of this new normal we need to recognize that we have leadership crises across the globe in politics, education, business, and other sectors of society.   Indeed, what we have is an abundance of leaders and an absence of leadership.  This new normal is not just at the global level; rather it exists at the local, national regional levels and we must adapt in order to thri       

As we set out on this new leadership journey, we need to accept one basic premise:  leadership is not the exclusive domain of top level people only.  We are wasting a vast amount of leadership talent within our organizations simply because we are paralyzed by the obsolete view that only individuals with position, power, and titles are the sole sources of leadership.   And, the irony of this is many of these people are terrible leaders who have no business holding these key positions.  Position – power – authority do not equal visionary leadership.  Indeed, this is true at primary and secondary levels of education right on through university and lifelong learning   This top only view of leadership knows no national boundaries and it is culminating in a waste of global leadership talent.

Everyone has Leadership Talent


Indeed, each individual has leadership capacity and thriving organisations tap leadership at all levels and from all staff in the organisation.  This is true for a primary school in Lindos to a high school in Patras to the University of Athens.  Leadership is not simply about position, status, and authority – although these elements certainly play a role in transformational leadership.  This essay will provide a vantage point for practical leadership issues and lessons for the 21st century leader.  I have tried to identify key issues that cut across national boundaries, cultures, and types of sectors (business, education, social services, manufacturing, government, etc.).  If you come from the world of open and distance learning all of these issues-lessons manifest themselves every day in every organization of the digital age.     

Leadership Lesson 1: Are you surrounded by the right lieutenants? 

Do you have the right staff with the right talents for the right reasons to help you achieve the right vision for your organization?  Do you have full confidence in these talented people to give them their directions and then step-back and let them do their jobs?   There is no more demoralising effect on talented organisational staff than to micro-manage.  Without question, it is the death of leadership.   People will not thrive or innovate if they have no room to breathe by micro-managing leaders.

You may say, yes, but in Greece or South Africa our systems of government, history and values towards work, family, and leadership are very different than western models.  Absolutely, of course they are different and you should embrace and celebrate these – but at the same time be prudent and review how other countries are similar and different in their approach to leadership.  Across cultures and sectors the question is still the same – do you have the right people supporting you to be successful and thrive in the 21st century.  Remember, you have to really look at your personnel – you may have the right people but you may have them in the wrong jobs – maximize their talents and abilities so they contribute the most to the organization.  And, you can be friends with your colleagues but don’t make personnel decisions based solely upon those friendships because you will be abandoning those friendships and leadership responsibility to the organization. 

Leadership Lesson 2:  Are you in the Vision Making business or the Revision Making business? 

A vision is an ideal state of affairs for your organization at some point in the future – usually 3-5 years.  For example, you may wish to expand the use of distance education in primary and high schools over the next five years.  What is your vision for making this a reality.  What resources will you need?  Who will lead this initiative?  Given the cognitive development stages of young children, is technology driven distance education appropriate for primary children?  What advantages and affordances does distance education bring to high school students?  Can distance education be expanded to provide inservice professional development for practicing teachers at the primary and secondary levels?  The key point here is that a vision for the future requires thinking about many critical questions simultaneously.  This takes consistency and resolve to stay the course. 

 Many leaders confuse strategic plans, mission and values statements with vision; these are important but tend to be short-term focused.  The result is that vision ends up looking much like the status quo organisation as it was before and the organization does not really change.  A vision brings a new ‘benefits continuum’ that tells members, stakeholders and the public the advantages that the new vision will create.  A vision for change without an improvement in the status quo will simply result in a revisionist return to same way things are now.  This is not visionary leadership nor visionary practice.

Bill Gates has a vision for Microsoft.  The President of China has a vision for his country.  The primary teacher in Shanghai has a vision for her class of students.  The president of the Hellenic Open University has a vision for education and access in Greece.    The corporate CEO has a vision for his agricultural business in Corfu.   A vision is a fundamental and essential element of any organization and this does not change due to country, culture, and/or sector.      

Leadership Lesson 3: Are you willing to give all credit for institutional successes to your subordinates and accept responsibility for all institutional failures?

Life is often not fair – nor is leadership but this is the deal.  A leader’s role is often lonely.  Re-read this and ask yourself if you accept the deal.   Leaders are role models who empower others – their reward, especially confident and dedicated leaders, is to shower praise and support on their staffs.  Leadership is also about making difficult decisions often driven by the vision, institutional priorities and changing economic and social forces inside and outside the organisation.  This characteristic is often very telling about how a leader is perceived by his/her followers.

We all know that at times we must give credit to the boss – it’s a natural protocol that we do out of respect for a leader’s position, role, and simply being the head of the organization.  Different cultures and countries view this differently but my view is that the increasing multi-national make-up of 21st century organizations may require all leaders to extend credit for success to their staff and less to themselves.  Can you do this and believe it is right as leader?  If you are a primary school rector or a high school technology director, can you share your successes with your staff at the same time accepting responsibility for set-backs or failures?    A leader’s greatest recognition and reward is to create a thriving and successful organization.   Do you still want to be a leader?  Yes, then keeping reading.

Leadership Lesson 4:  Leaders must have good judgment.

Anyone can make decisions but making consistently good decisions is an art and science.    It requires good judgment and as the opening quote of this essay by Will Rogers noted we acquire good judgment from experience – much of which comes from poor judgement.  In sum, we learn by watching others do things wrong and by making some mistakes ourselves.   Welcome to leadership.

Educational leaders are marvels at creating things.  We can create institutes, forums, technology centers, and partnerships out of thin air very fast.  What we don’t do well is exit projects and initiatives that are not working.  The best intentions and best ideas often derail – do you have an exit strategy to cut your losses, learn from the process, and move on?  It is better to address this upfront rather than when the boat starts to founder.

A final observation about judgment for the aspiring and experienced leader.  Some people will argue that any decision is better than no decision.  Inexperienced leaders will often make a decision falling in to this trap and fail to recognize that any decision may be the wrong decision.  Good leaders know that sometimes the best option is to wait, gather more data, consult other advisers, and then re-assess the decision factors.  Patience is a virtue even if at times everything is putting pressure on the leader to do anything.     

I practice a basic rule for decision making – there are no decisions that cannot wait at least 72 hours – three days.  Of course, there are exceptions if it is a life or death matter but generally the world will be just fine if you wait three days to make important decisions.  It is amazing how many people want important decisions made on Friday afternoons before leaving for the weekend.  Apparently for some this gives them the inner peace of knowing when they come to work on Monday all is good in the world; only to arrive and find out the decision was wrong, their bosses are upset, and the organization will be negatively affected.  Indeed, I avoid making any decision on Fridays for before long holiday weekends and it has served me well.  Good leaders know how and why they make decisions and always have contingency plans ready to go is a decision must be modified or changed.

Leadership Lesson 5:   Leading Change is not the Change Strategy

Have you ever worked for a leader who was charismatic, smart, a visionary, a great communicator, and cared endlessly about his/her staff?   We all have.  And here is one of the ultimate leadership dilemmas for the 21st century organization – a leader with all these positive attributes and personal qualities may not be able to effectively lead change.

Developing, writing, and gaining support for the initial change strategy amongst key staff is very important; yet it loses its momentum when leaders who just don’t have the ability to really lead change founder.  So what do we do when we have a terrific day to day leader but one who can’t quite bring it all together to navigate the organization in a different direction?  A few practical suggestions from experience.

First, the leadership team not the leader is responsible for leading change.  The complexity of 21st century organizations have made it readily apparent that the all-powerful, all-knowing, single leader theory is just obsolete.  And if you are sitting your office in Athens, Patras, Rodos, Lindos or any other lovely Greek city admiring the beautiful view of the water or mountains thinking but we Greeks like the all-knowing, powerful leader – get over it does not work in the information age.  One fact of life we should all embrace is there is power in numbers.  In practical terms this means drawing upon all the talent readily available to you and partnerships and collaboration more often than not will produce better results and better leadership.   

The leadership team should comprise representatives from across the organization and the implementation plan or change strategy must be collectively managed with clear roles and actions.  An external advisory board if often a valuable resource to provide different vantage points on organizational plans and change.

Secondly, ensure you set short-term targets or goals that demonstrate successes.  These help increase support for the broader change strategy.  Remember, your staff and your customers/students/ clients will not support your change strategy unless you can provide them with a ‘benefits continuum’ that is better than the status quo.  If stakeholders don’t believe the change will bring benefits to them, the organization and even society why would they support the strategy.   The answer is they won’t and you will be back at ground zero.   I encourage everyone reading this to reference John Kotter’s book ‘Leading Change’ and his eight (8) steps for change (See the end of this essay).   Your entire leadership team can learn from this process and the various roles that lead to success.         

Leadership Lesson 6:  Are you willing to think differently about how you think relative to the past-present-future of your university/organization?

If you venture 370 miles south-southeast off the coast of Newfoundland to a depth of 12,500 feet/3800 meters you will find the Titanic.  For all the technical reasons and human errors cited for this tragedy, the real culprit was flawed thinking supplanted by an unshakeable belief that ‘technology’ is unsinkable.   Indeed, this sounds similar to the rhetoric we often hear about the ‘technology = progress’ mantra of digital technologies. 

As a leader, you must think different about how you think about these things.  Your organisation depends on thinking that is relevant and practical for the challenges faced by the organisation.  And, no matter all the affordances of these tools it still takes sound human thinking and judgment to ensure they don’t sink.  People, not technology will be the most essential success factor for 21st century organizations. 

Leadership Lesson 7:  Planning is, without exception, continuous and contingency planning is an essential component of continuous planning. 

Is your institutional planning process continuous and do you engage in creating alternative ‘game plans’ – contingencies?  Are your planning processes embedded in your strategy for leading change?  Whether you are a primary school, high school, technical or vocational institute or a government agency with oversight over education, planning is continuous and having contingencies are a defining characteristic of good leaders.

If you don’t know where you are going then it doesn’t really matter which road you take.  If you do know then you likely have a plan – and plans usually don’t come off perfectly.  Engaging in contingency planning, particularly for big picture change initiatives, is worth the time and effort.  General Dwight D. Eisehnower was asked about planning following the D-Day invasion of France on 6 June 1944 that eventually led to the final defeat of Nazi Germany.  Eisenhower was asked how important was the plan.  He responded: ‘The plan is nothing but planning is everything.’   He knew he had to have contingencies because plans must be adaptable, flexible, and creative to truly be effective.  Does your school have a contingency plan when things don’t go as planned?   

Leadership Lesson 8:  Action speaks louder than words.  Do your actions create trust, confidence and loyalty across the university beyond your rhetoric? 

You have to want to be in the leadership role – reluctant leadership does not work!  Yes or no, it’s not a complicated question.  Do your actions match your intentions and your behaviour?  Is empathy part of your relationship with your staff?  Empathy means you are willing to do any job in the organization that you ask others to do – you lead by example.  Many organisational theorists in leadership, management and organisational development will tell you if you want to maximize the talents and results of your staff – delegate, delegate and delegate more.  Can you give your staff wide latitude to make decisions in your absence, to move forward autonomously and exert their creative and innovative approaches to solving problems and creating opportunities?

A final comment on reluctant leadership.  I have worked for two leaders in forty years that had one very remarkable trait that I call calm under fire.   What do I mean?  As the stress levels, complexity, confusion, importance of decisions went up these leaders exhibited progressively greater levels of calm.  They thrived in the position – they weren’t in the leadership role for position, title, and applause.  No, these leaders embraced the process and challenges of leadership.  I do not believe you can teach this attribute – some have it and most do not.  

What I do know if any individual who assumes a leadership role but doesn’t really want to face the music (accept all the challenges and criticisms) that come with being the leader will likely fail.  How many times when things have gone wrong that these leaders would say well I never wanted the position in the first place.  Indeed, this is not genuine leadership but the absence of courage to accept the role you have committed to for your peers, your stakeholders and your organization.      

Leadership for the New Global Normal

Cultural agility refers to a leader’s capacity to lead a multi-cultural team within an organization.  Moreover, this suggests that there will different vantage points from which this diversity manifests itself.  Culture matters, history matters, traditions and social norms matter – and all of these will increasingly be evident across the globe with multi-national teams.  They will be equally evident in Greece, in Greek schools, and in any integration of distance education to serve primary and secondary education.  A leader’s cultural agility will have to embrace all these cultural and social attributes of his/her staff – there will be disagreements and yet there will be immense opportunities to learn how culture norms and traditions impact leadership and improve organizational effectiveness.

The lessons shared in this essay are not all inclusive and there are many other leadership elements that will impact 21st century organizations.  These lessons, however, are and will increasingly be more critical for the future.  Why?  Because collectively they build the capacity of the organization and its members to thrive, adopt change, and compete in complex local, national and  global markets.

Indeed, every organization needs an innovative vision for the future.  Planning is essential for this and a guiding coalition or leadership team will create this strategy.   The leader will be forced to ask do I have the right people around me for our organization to thrive in the future.   Are my best people in the right roles?  Do we foster leadership opportunities for all our staff in our companies/universities/ministries/agencies?   Do we have good decision makers within our organization who can play key roles in leading change to adapt to new markets, changing economic and political landscapes, and new opportunities?  

Do we rely too much on digital technologies and not enough on strategic and tactical use of those digital tools?   Technology is not a panacea for solving all our organizational issues.   Does your leadership style inspire and provide a role model for others across the organization?

In conclusion, 21st century organizations are heading towards an exciting and challenging new global normal.  The capacity to transform industries and organizations will require dynamic and innovative leadership from Bucharest to Athens; Shanghai to New York; and Sydney to Cape Town.  Are you up to the challenge?   Are you that leader?       

Leading Change
(Kotter, 2012, p. 23)
1. Establishing a sense of urgency
  • Examining the market and competitive realities
  • Identifying and discussing crises, potential crises, or major opportunities
2. Creating the guiding coalition
  • Putting together a group with enough power to lead the change
  • Getting the group to work together like a team
3. Developing a vision and strategy
  • Creating a vision to help direct the change effort
  • Developing strategies for achieving that vision
4. Communicating the change vision
  • Using every vehicle possible to constantly communicate the new vision and strategies
  • Having the guiding coalition role model the behavior expected of employees
5. Empowering broad-based action
  • Getting rid of obstacles
  • Changing systems or structures that undermine the change vision
  • Encouraging risk taking and nontraditional ideas, activities and actions
6. Generating short-term wins
  • Planning for visible improvements in performance, or ‘wins’
  • Creating those wins
  • Visibly recognizing and rewarding people who made the wins possible
7. Consolidating gains and producing more change
  • Using increased credibility to change all systems, structures, and policies that don’t fit together and don’t fit the transformation vision
  • Hiring, promoting, and developing people who can implement the change vision
  • Reinvigorating the process with new projects, themes, and change agents
8. Anchoring new approaches in the culture
  • Creating better performance through customer-and productivity-oriented behavior, more and better leadership, and more effective management
  • Articulating the connections between new behaviors and organizational success
  • Developing means to ensure leadership development and succession
Source:  Adapted from John P. Kotter, ‘Why Transformation Efforts Fail,’ Harvard Business Review (March-April 1995).  Reprinted by permission.
Kotter, J. P.  (2012).  Leading change.  Boston:  Harvard Business Review Press.
Professor of Educational Leadership and Open and Distance Learning