What is Educational Leadership?

Written by Scott Wilson

Educational leadership is the exercise of developing a vision, providing direction, and offering support to teachers, staff, students, and learning communities. In both formal management roles and informal positions of influence, educational leadership is the quality that guides learners to knowledge and skills for their lives and careers.

Educational leaders are principals and superintendents, but they are also teacher-leaders and even coaches, as well as administrative professionals in dozens of different specialized roles.

principal on campus

Leadership has never been an easy concept to pin down. In fact, given the broad challenges that leaders face in any field, trying to narrow the focus or definition of the role could itself be a mistake. Leaders deal with the unexpected. Leadership, in some senses, is all about handling whatever comes up outside conventional definitions.

Educational leaders are the ultimate adaptable resource for guidance and instruction in their organization.

In the world of education, we mostly think of leadership emerging from the formal roles of superintendency and principalship. But educational leadership isn’t just a job description. It’s a set of qualities, responsibilities, and opportunities that come together in individuals and circumstances to influence a department, a school, or a district.

To develop the skills and mindset to become a school or district leader, you must first master the concept of educational leadership.

The Concept of Educational Leadership Is a Modern Definition of a Traditional Duty

19th century school sceneLike leadership in general, views of what educational leadership is have shifted over time.

In early scholastic environments, there wasn’t much need seen for any individual to be in charge. Schools didn’t start from the top down. Rising from the level of individual teachers, schools had few students, few facilities, and limited responsibilities compared to today’s education system. There was no single individual that made it all happen. Schools were a community effort, and governed by the community.

Instead, each teacher was responsible to the school board or to the parents of students. Buildings and facilities, which absorb so much educational leadership attention today, were the responsibility of those same community groups.

Coordination among teachers themselves was intramural, if it happened at all. There were no guarantees that any given class would reflect the teachings or curriculum in others of the same grade. Similarly, most teachers found themselves learning on the job, individually. No systematic support was available from on high.

But as the education system grew, so did the need for coordination. In the early 1800s, the role of the principal teacher emerged. Typically, one of the more senior teachers in a school would take care of the growing administrative concerns, in addition to their regular teaching duties.

Over time, as management duties grew, the job dropped both the teaching duties and the word teacher from the title. And as school systems emerged from independent community schools coming together, a new level of leadership emerged at the district level for superintendents.

Educational Leadership Happens in Every Part of the School Hierarchy

asking questions

When you mention the term educational leadership today, those are the two roles that first come to mind.


As the head of the school building, they run a collection of sequential grades grouped by age. Their authority over teachers, students, and staff within their school is comprehensive. They provide motivation, discipline, and support, while ensuring the building itself is fully stocked, dry, and habitable. Most schools have assistant principals as well, who take on tasks delegated by the top job.


Superintendents run districts, which collect all the schools in a specific town or region. They deal with more big-picture considerations than principals. That includes budgets, community relations, contract negotiations, and long-term planning. Just as principals do, they have various assistant superintendents to cover specific departments within the district.

While educational leadership is still mostly associated with those senior roles, it’s more of a function than a job. And it emerges at every level of the school system.

Each of these jobs, and many more, fill in the educational leadership function for every school and district in America. It’s why leadership skills are important at every level.

The areas in which educational leaders are expected to exercise those skills have expanded enormously in recent decades. But the core of what makes for effective educational leadership remains the same.

Investigating the Idea of Leadership Itself

For much of the history of organized education, educational leadership was seen as important but not systemic. There was a mystique around leaders, but no real investigation into what made them great. The qualities of effective leaders mirror many of those we still value today:

The core duties of educational leaders have also been remarkably stable over time:

Only since the 1940s or so has the science of leadership been investigated in any systematic way. And since the academic community has taken the lead in those studies, educational leadership itself has been one of the most deeply investigated roles.

Exploring a Definition of Educational Leadership Through Process

Many definitions of educational leadership have been offered over the years. It may be easiest to see what it is by looking at how it works. Because it’s a function rather than a position, the process itself is part of the definition.

Educational Leadership Involves a Vision of the Future

There’s no concept of leadership that exists without goals. At every level of the education system, leaders are the individuals who break down larger concepts or responsibilities into action items and objectives to achieve them.

You can’t lead if you’re not going somewhere.

That requires a process of analysis. Leaders have the knowledge of the teaching domain to evaluate new ideas. And they have the creativity to apply their own thinking to new information or objectives. From that combination, they see things that others can’t see, and find paths that aren’t always clear.

Educational Leadership Involves Asserting Influence and Giving Guidance

smiling leadersNo matter how you slice it, educational leadership is a field all about the exercise of soft skills.

While modern principals and superintendents have broad managerial powers, the school environment is a collaborative one. It isn’t a world that functions well with direct orders and hard mandates. Educational leaders exercise power through influence and support.

Interpersonal relationship building is a key piece of educational leadership. Getting to know and understand teachers and staff; developing connections within the community; connecting with the kids and their families… all are pieces of the educational leadership puzzle. And each requires empathy, communication skills, and psychological insight.

Educational Leadership Creates Organizational Structure and Fosters Coordination

Coordinating the actions of all those individuals is the final building block of educational leadership. All the vision and influence in the world aren’t much good without organization. It’s a very mundane task, but an essential one.

So educational leadership involves delegation and an ability to build organizational structures. Leadership is not just a process of offering direction and support, but also a process of providing ongoing feedback and connection.

That includes mentorship and guidance for teachers and staff. Educational leadership is part of a feedback loop. Leaders take in new information and adjust their plans and resources accordingly. That can mean reassigning staff or lining-up new training in areas that need attention.

It also means reflection and self-awareness. Leaders have to take the same insight and skill-development process they use with others, and apply it to their own growth.

Educational leadership is an endless cycle of such processes. And it often starts with a degree.

Educational Leadership Is a Function That Itself Requires Extensive Education

handing back testsOf course, learning what educational leadership is involves education itself. With the recognition that most of the skills and qualities found in good educational leaders can be learned, plenty of degree programs have popped up to teach them.

Although leadership is a function that exists at every level in schools, the job titles are usually for more senior positions. That means they are taught in advanced degree programs in educational leadership. Typical programs are the Master of Education in Educational Leadership or a Doctor of Education in Educational Administration. And for very specific, quick hits of leadership training outside of full degree programs, something like a Graduate Certificate in School Administration and Supervision delivers focused training.

These degrees come with plenty of options for customizing leadership studies. While the role and traits of good leaders are similar across the board, there is a lot of specialization in subject expertise and specific skills that come with different leadership roles. For example, a superintendent is likely to spend more time in public speaking and communications; a university registrar may need more training in project management skills.

Particularly in public schools, this education is important enough that states require it for licensure to fill certain jobs. A state-certified EPP (Educator Preparation Program) in the right type of educational leadership is a must for most primary and secondary school leaders.

How Important Is Leadership in an Educational Organization?

discussing online workWith the rise in evidence-based education, it’s become reasonable to ask just how important leadership actually is in educational organizations. And it turns out there is an answer: according to a decade-old analysis of studies on factors influencing educational outcomes, between three and five percent of the variability could be attributed to building leadership.

While that might not sound like much, it’s because the most important aspects of educational attainment are at home, and elsewhere outside the control of schools. When the study isolated just what the education system can accomplish, it found that leadership effects alone factor into 25 percent of the potential for change.

That’s a significant piece of the puzzle when it comes to educational attainment. And it can reach more kids in more ways than one teacher standing in front of a classroom. Educational leaders at the building and district level have a lot of leverage. The learning experience and the overall attainment of every student in their area comes back to them.

That’s why educational leadership is important. And it’s why only the best qualified teachers and administrators belong in the positions where it is required.

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