The Most Essential Personal Attributes of an Effective Leader￼
In order to be effective in the current climate, school leaders must embody a mix of cognitive, psychological, and social skills. Personal attributes such as self-awareness, empathy, emotional stability and resilience are just as important, if not more, than the cognitive skills required to successfully lead a team of people.
When leaders develop these social and personal skills, they are better able to relate to their staff and find a place of understanding and common ground, which positively influences staff wellbeing and overall school culture.
This article will explore:
- Why leaders should use a wellbeing focused approach
- The personal attributes required for effective leadership
- The influence leaders have on staff wellbeing
- Ideas to begin building more self-awareness
A Wellbeing Focused Leadership Approach
As school leaders, teachers and staff continue to navigate a stressful time in education it’s essential that leaders adapt their leadership to meet the needs of staff during this time.
“People first, then pedagogy”
This motto encourages school leaders to refocus their strategy and approach to factor in the wellbeing needs of their staff rather than solely focusing on instructional goals.
School leaders have the ability to influence staff wellbeing and mental health through their behaviours and leadership style. When they lead with compassion and care and aim to embody a transformational leadership style, they’re more likely to inspire and motivate their staff, leading to happier workplace culture and improved student performance outcomes.
When leaders are only focused on results and performance, they risk being met with resistance and frustration from staff struggling to keep up with the mounting demands of their job. Adding a “human touch” and exhibiting vulnerability in our leadership approach can foster a sense of respect and trust between staff and leaders.
The Personal Attributes Required for Effective Leadership
Being a leader in education is a highly emotional profession requiring cognitive and personal skills such as self-awareness and emotional intelligence.
‘The Seven Strong Claims for Effective School Leadership’ by Leithwood et al., 2020 shares that with a balance of these skills, an effective leader can build a school culture that influences the health and wellbeing of the staff they lead, ultimately leading to improved outcomes and performance.
It’s challenging to be a good leader without an initial “understanding of self”, which researchers describe as a process by which individuals reflect on their values, identity, emotions, goals, knowledge, and capabilities (Chan et al., 2005; Ilies et al., 2005).
With a rise in staff and student mental health challenges, educational leaders must have a grasp not only on ways to influence student learning, wellbeing, and curriculum delivery but also on people management. The Seven Claims for Strong School Leadership distinguishes the effective leader as one who not only applies strong leadership practices to influence student instruction but also exhibits a selection of personal “traits” that influence staff motivation, ability and working conditions. These traits are explained as “personal leadership resources,” a mix of cognitive, social, and psychological skills. Social and psychological skills are the ones of focus here.
The psychological and social personal qualities are just as, if not more important than academic/cognitive capabilities as a predictor of one’s success in life and at work.
Managing teaching professionals effectively requires qualities that influence the cognitive, social and psychological climate of the workplace (McCallum, 2021). Such skills may include empathy, resilience, integrity, adaptability, enthusiasm, passion, flexibility, confidence, self-belief, collaboration, self-efficacy, motivation and self-discipline, to name a few.
The personal qualities the literature deems statistically significant for leadership effectiveness were best explained by economists Heckman and Kautz (2012; 2013), who identified ‘The Big 5’. These five non-academic qualities are the most influential to leader effectiveness. These include:
- Openness: Being open to experiences, curious, creative and willing
- Conscientiousness: Being organised, productive and responsible
- Extroversion: Being sociable, assertive, outgoing and energetic
- Agreeableness: Being compassionate, respectful, developing trust
- Emotional stability: Demonstrating low neuroticism.
Their research concluded that effective leadership relied upon higher levels of extraversion, conscientiousness, openness, and low neuroticism.
While, statistically, agreeableness was not found to be a significant trait for leadership effectiveness in Heckman and Kautz’ work, educational leadership research supports that leaders who provide and demonstrate equitable ‘care’ to individuals and groups support the psychological safety of staff (Tronto, 2013). Care in leadership ‘involves embracing and exhibiting values, dispositions and behaviours related to empathy, compassion, advocacy, systemic critique, perseverance and calculated risk-taking for the sake of justly serving students and improving schools’ (Wilson, 2016; Heffernan et al., 2022).
It could be argued that now, more than ever, is a time requiring greater care, compassion, respect and trust in schools as teachers, students and communities move through and recover from the collective worldwide trauma inflicted by the pandemic.
To survive and thrive in an intensively emotional and complex school ecosystem, leaders require specific capabilities, qualities, and social resources to manage the emotion, stress, and steep mental health challenges they and their staff are at risk of facing. In addition, the instability and competitive environment of schools nowadays relies on certain personal abilities and emotional intelligence to cope, adapt and manage global and local turbulences that are experienced in schools today (Duckworth & Yeager, 2015; Schmidt, 2010; Berkovich & Eyal, 2015).
While the research uncovers a variety of definitions for emotional intelligence, Mayer and Salovey (1997) and Berkovich & Eyal (2015) propose it’s made up of four abilities:
- Awareness: to perceive emotion in oneself and others
- Management: to use emotions to facilitate thinking
- Social awareness: to understand emotions and emotion processes
- Regulation of self and others: to manage the experience and expression of emotions in oneself and others
Additionally, Goleman’s (1998) definition of emotional intelligence combines personal qualities with social behaviors and competencies (e.g., communication and conflict management) and adds an aptitude for relationship management into the mix.
Furthermore, in a literature review, Leithwood et al., (2020) identify ‘empathic abilities’ (an ability to relate to the emotions, perspectives and experiences of others) as another critical component of emotional intelligence.
Equipped with these personal abilities, emotionally intelligent leaders may conduct themselves more adaptively and effectively, demonstrate transformational leadership, and promote desired organisational outcomes that can influence school performance (Cai, 2011).
Effective leaders must first have the self-awareness to recognise their strengths and weaknesses, act upon this knowledge and monitor and adjust their own behaviours accordingly. Increasing research evidence demonstrates a strong connection between self-awareness and leader effectiveness (Gardner et al., 2005; Luthans and Avolio, 2003). Through the application of certain personal qualities, an ability to understand the emotions of others and empathise, leaders are more likely to influence the wellbeing and work performance of those they lead.
The leader’s influence on staff wellbeing
The emotions of a leader have the power to influence staff wellbeing and emotions. Teachers’ emotional states can reflect any perceived negative emotions of leaders, which have reported impacts on teachers’ professional and personal lives (Berkovich & Eyal, 2015, Harris, & Hopkins, 2008).
Effective school leaders encompass certain personal attributes (inclusive of emotional intelligence) which influence their staff’s feelings of wellbeing, in particular their ability to “thrive” or “flourish.”
The research in this area highlights how exhibiting care through being responsive to the needs of staff, students, and communities through adopting emotionally supportive behaviours reduces fears and anxieties, builds a culture of trust, respect, and solidarity and enables collaboration (Berkovich & Eyal, 2015; Heffernan et al., 2022; Tronto, 2013).
School leaders play a key role in securing student academic success and wellbeing through the effective management and promotion of staff wellbeing. It is, therefore, essential for them to have personal abilities that reflect good personal wellbeing and influence over the wellbeing of others.
Further to the personal abilities and emotional intelligence covered, a grasp on their own health and wellbeing is essential for effective leadership. For example, Leithwood et al.’s 2020 review of the literature found that when leaders had a high level of relationship-oriented behaviors, focusing on supporting others and promoting their needs and welfare, it led to positively affected followers’ emotions— increasing teachers’ passion for their job and reducing their fears.
Teachers who feel supported by colleagues and leaders report increased professional wellbeing, which impacts student mental health, engagement, workplace satisfaction, self-efficacy and relationships with students and colleagues. These factors play a part in shaping the overall school culture and a positive school culture is associated with improved student learning outcomes and school performance.
Tips for getting started with an emphasis on building self-awareness
Developing these personal qualities is not a fixed but a dynamic process.
Research suggests some personal attributes can be developed and improved with age and instruction and are shaped by family, schooling and social environments (Heckman & Krautz, 2013) and can change depending on influence, relationships, situations and experiences. However, effective personal and professional development is circumstantial and dependent on the motivations, dispositions and commitment of the individual.
The studies reviewed by Leithwood et al., (2020) suggest that effective educational leaders use a variety of strategies to proactively regulate their emotions. With a better handle on their own emotions, they are able to influence the emotions of those they work alongside to encourage emotional reframing in their staff.
We can begin building awareness about ourselves and our leadership style by observing our thoughts, actions and behaviours and engaging in “self-study”.
To further develop your self-awareness, implement strategies such as:
- Journal writing
- Explore personality assessments such as the DISC, DOPE, VIA Strengths, and Big 5 personality tests.
- Value exploration
- Personal and professional development reading
- Working with reflective practitioners such as a psychologist or coach
- Seeking critical feedback from friends, loved ones, managers, or coworkers
Self-awareness is a first and powerful step in recognising our current approach to leadership and what we can do to be more effective leaders and positively influence staff.
An effective leader must adapt to changing circumstances and ensure the wellbeing of their staff doesn’t get swept under the rug as expectations and responsibilities continue to mount.
Through the development of the personal attributes mentioned, leaders can become more effective at leading staff through complex change and inspiring a positive and tight-knit school culture.
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