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Extraordinary Leadership for Extraordinary Times


By Dr. Joanne Robinson, Director of Professional Learning, Education Leadership Canada

CEO, International School Leadership


Universally, we are having a lot of discussion about the needs of our 21st Century graduates in order for them to survive and thrive in changing global societies. According to Dr. Michael Fullan from Ontario, Canada, and one of the world’s leaders on student achievement and change, our graduates need to go beyond the basics. He describes the ‘˜the six C’s of student achievement’ as: character, citizenship, communication, critical thinking and problem-solving, collaboration, and creativity and imagination (Fullan, 2013, p. 9). These six C’s are attributes that parents and the public value, and employers seek. It prompts us to ask ourselves how leaders can nurture such curiosity, creativity and authentic learning if educators are focused on covering the curriculum and preparing for ‘˜the test’?

In this article, I will share perspectives on some of most important leadership considerations from experts such as Michael Fullan, Ken Leithwood, Kathleen Cushman, and Kath Murdoch. Each of them adds to our understanding of dynamic leadership.Their suggestions range from fostering risk-taking and innovation to building trust, furthering collaboration, and helping students problem solve. However, an underlying principle must be that these leadership characteristics must lead to student engagement and love of learning.

Preparing students for their future. Most jurisdictions across the globe are having their own conversations about the challenges of describing our 21st Century graduates, yet there is common agreement that the status quo is no longer enough. The question we are asking ourselves, as school leaders, are, ‘What does our work in schools look like as we influence the capacity of our graduates? How do we create learning environments where our students are ready for their future?

For the past eight years, we have embraced our responsibilities through the mantra, ‘Leadership is second only to classroom instruction among all school-related factors that contribute to what students learn at school.”¨(The Wallace Foundation ‘“ Learning from Leadership Project; Seashore Louis et al, 2010). Globally, we now know that ‘…because principals can have an impact on student achievement, improving the quality of school leadership is more important than improving the quality of a single teacher’s practice.’ ‘¨(Andreas Schleicher, Schools for 21st-Century Learners, 2015). How does that change leaders’ practice?

The answer may be explained through a comment from John Hattie (2015), ‘The greatest influence on student progression in learning is having highly expert, inspired and passionate teachers and school leaders working together to maximize the effect of their teaching on all students in their care.’

Dynamic School Leadership

Leadership is the exercise of influence on organizational members and diverse stakeholders toward the identification’¨and achievement of the organization’s vision and goals (Ontario Leadership Framework, 2013). If the vision and ‘¨goals of our education system(s) are’¨ some version of Fullan’s six C’s, dynamic leadership will mean purposefully engaging many others in a spirit of ‘˜innovation, risk-taking, commitment and problem solving’ (Fullan, 2013, p. 9). Effective leaders must become facilitators and lead learners with their teachers and students. Impact is measured by influence, not power.

Leithwood’s Big 5. The most current research in Ontario, Canada, through Dr.  Ken Leithwood (Leithwood, 2017), clearly consolidates the experience and expertise in school districts across the province. Leithwood (2017) identifies the ‘˜big five’ power indices of effective districts and their schools:

  1. Academic Emphasis

  2. Teacher Trust in Others

  3. Collaborative Structures/ Cultures

  4. Collective teacher efficacy

  5. Classroom instruction

Leithwood’s (2017) work confirms we need to keep our focus on the students in our charge and foster collective responsibility for learning. Leadership competence is measured by our capacity for creating the conditions of the ‘˜big five’ and ensuring equity and opportunity for everyone in our schools and districts. Leaders create a natural and infectious climate of excitement for learning and provide a role model for their entire school community. Accountability morphs into meeting the needs of our students as they become independent, motivated 21st Century graduates who are prepared for their future.

Social Learning and Student Interests. Dynamic leadership suggests vibrant, energetic and highly motivating environments for our students. In her study of motivational factors that impact student engagement, Kathleen Cushman identified ‘˜social learning with others, links to students’ own interests, cultural connections, physical activity, relevance to the larger world, competition, an element of choice and sheer curiosity about an intriguing puzzle’ (2013, p. 42). Are we maximizing the potential for each of our students and building a nation of future nation builders?

Murdoch’s Inquiry Model

As leaders we must emulate and learn from the framework articulated by Kath Murdoch (2015) in her work on inquiry-based learning environments (p. 98).

  1. As researchers we formulate questions and use a wide range of resources and techniques to investigate problems, interests and issues. We think critically to acknowledge our sources;

  2. As thinkers we think logically, creatively and reflectively. We are open-minded and make our thinking visible to others;

  3. As collaborators we work with others on shared goals, questions and challenges. We are a constructive part of the team, taking on different roles and actively listening to others.

  4. As self-managers we can learn independently and make wise decisions. We set personal goals and are continuous, reflective learners who are responsible and resilient.

  5. As communicators we communicate ideas confidently in various ways for different purposes. We also listen actively to what others communicate and adapt our communication for different contexts.

While Murdoch’s (2015) framework was designed for inquiry-based classrooms, it also gives leaders a reflective checklist to measure our ability to create the learning conditions identified by Cushman (2013), and ensure our students are engaged.

Leadership is an Attitude and Mindset

In conclusion, extraordinary leadership today exists throughout our systems. Leadership is not a position but an attitude and mindset. Dynamic leadership must translate into dynamic learning for students. Student engagement and love of learning is the gauge every school leader must use to evaluate their impact.


Cushman, K. (2013). Minds on Fire. Educational Leadership, 71, No.4, p. 42.

Fullan, M. (2013). Motion leadership in action. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Hattie, J. (2015). What works best in education: The politics of collaborative expertise. London, UK: Pearson.

Leithwood, K. (2017). Comprehensive approaches to leadership development: Review of selected research.

Murdoch, K., (2015). The power of inquiry: Teaching and learning with curiosity, creativity and purpose in the contemporary classroom. Northcote Victoria, Australia: Seastar Education.

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2013). Ontario Leadership Framework. Toronto, ON.

Schleicher, A. (2015). Schools for 21st-Century Learners: Strong Leaders, Confident Teachers, Innovative Approaches, International Summit on the Teaching Profession, OECD Publishing.

Seashore Louis, K., Leithwood, K. Wahlstrom, K & Anderson, S. et. al (2010). Learning from leadership: Investigating the links to improved student learning. New York: Wallace Foundation

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