The Power of Humility: Why Egoless Leadership Helps Schools Thrive

leading with humility
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You know the leader who is the loudest, most brash, and polarizing personality. They have a chip on their shoulder, and a take-no-prisoners approach, demanding compliance. Yet a host of research shows how toxic and destructive this leader is, especially in schools. Humility is indeed the driver that produces far greater outcomes for school and student success. 

A classic on this subject, Good to Great, characterizes successful leaders by their modesty and openness to feedback. Unpretentious leaders prioritize the collective success of their team over personal glory, fostering a positive and collaborative work environment that ultimately leads to greater outcomes and student achievement. 

Leading With Humility: It Starts With Everyone Else 

You may wonder if this brand of leadership remains relevant, especially since more bombastic leaders seem prevalent today. The answer is a resounding yes. Why then do toxic egos persist in leadership? It comes down to basic psychology. 

People find comfort in leaders who are ego-driven because they appear confident. These individuals are likely to emerge and obtain leadership roles due to charisma, and a willingness to take risks. Crisis or volatility may delude us into thinking these leaders can conquer our problems. Unsettling circumstances attract arrogant, self-assured individuals who project the perception of strength and certainty. 

The danger lies in these leaders’ tendency to thrive on surrounding themselves with individuals who reinforce their self-interest and do not challenge the detriments of their excessive pride. Consider how dangerous this is. Unquestioned leaders can cause drastic consequences if unchecked by narrow viewpoints.

Schools are reliant on the kind of strong leadership that produces a positive student atmosphere and subsequently, greater outcomes. Marzano's meta-analysis of 69 studies found principals profoundly impact student achievement, with highly effective school leaders associated with 10-15 percentile point gains. Skilled principals focus on key behaviors, such as supportive instructional guidance and relationships that drive improved student outcomes.

Principals who exhibit humility by consistently seeking input from others, focusing on teacher development, and admitting mistakes rather than projecting superiority are perceived by teachers as more effective, and project confidence. This style contributes to greater student success by enhancing teacher commitment, innovation, job satisfaction, and instructional quality, all signs of motivating school cultures.

Transformational approaches that challenge egotistical school leadership are discussed in Radical Principals, which points to evidence that embracing inclusive, democratic values and actively working to dismantle oppressive power structures within schools brings much more effective outcomes. These approaches, plus culturally sustaining pedagogy, drive these school leaders to become agents of social justice and systemic changes, fostering schools that empower diverse students and communities.

A 2017 study revealed that humble leaders prioritize service, build trust and loyalty, and foster openness. Leader humility positively influences team creativity and performance, with the strongest impact occurring when a constructively competitive climate is at work. Indeed, humility's critical significance in promoting trust, understanding, and collaboration in leaders is clear. 

Feedback Loop 

Educational leaders face immense challenges guiding schools to success. While confidence and drive are valuable, ego and arrogance undermine leaders' effectiveness in building success. Leadership built on openness and self-awareness benefits schools through increased teacher commitment, innovation, and learning. Openness and self awareness can be gained through shared feedback.

How do we get and act on feedback?

DO THIS: Offer faculty surveys, and be sure to respond to their feedback with actionable solutions. This doesn’t have to be all-encompassing but showing effort to address their concerns demonstrates follow through and responsiveness.

Additional evidence reveals that leader humility promotes beneficial behaviors like workplace care and innovation. By modeling openness, curiosity, and recognition of the faculty’s strengths, school leaders foster motivation and engagement in the school community.

DO THIS: Celebrate your faculty and students in big and small moments. Simple, practical feedback such as a post-it with phrases of encouragement, or certificates relating to teachers achievement, are effective methods. Engaging the school community in positive recognition through programs such as PBIS helps the school community thrive. These have powerful and far reaching results in setting the tone and contributing to a safe, learner friendly environment. 

The evidence shows how humble leaders who can balance confidence and strength, honesty, courage, and commitment to growth set their schools up for success. These factors lay the foundation for empowering students, faculty, and the school to reach full potential. Understanding your school community’s perspective and responding to their needs is critical.

The Benefits for Student Success 

Humble leaders create an environment optimized for student success. By valuing teachers' perspectives, administrators gain insights that better support their faculties’ work and morale. This translates to more effective instruction and nurturing classrooms where students can thrive.

Multiplier leaders also avoid insular decision-making and prioritize collaborating with families, students, and the community. This approach ensures all voices are heard in serving students’ well-being and growth. 

Ultimately, through humility, trust, innovation, and collective wisdom, educational leaders can fulfill their central purpose: helping every child maximize their success.

Dr. Michael Gaskell is Principal at Central Elementary School in East Brunswick, NJ, has been published in more than four dozen articles, and is author of three books: Radical Principals, Leading Schools Through Trauma (September, 2021) and Microstrategy Magic (October, 2020). Mike presents at national conferences, including ISTE (June 2023) The Learning and the Brain (November, 2021), and FETC (January 2023, and 2022); and works to find refreshing solutions to the persistent problems educators and families face. Read more at LinkedIn