At Better Leaders Better Schools, we like to be creative and think out-of-the-box. 

That said, we’re not going to talk about ideas you most likely have already found — Leadership styles like constructivist, transformational, servant, instructional, etc.

We want to add value by identifying some of our heroes and sheroes and what makes them great. Each section will include three practical tips. and also some book suggestions to take your learning further. 

Priya Parker

The Priya Parker leadership style is about how we gather at a school. Parker is a master of creating intentional gatherings. A quick win: stop taking for granted that people gather within your school. Be more intentional with back-to-school nights, open houses, teacher debriefs, faculty meetings etc.

3 tips to create better gatherings

  • Don’t start with logistics. They’re boring and will kill the momentum each gathering naturally has.
  • Exclude well. Everyone doesn’t have to be invited to every gathering.
  • Conversation menus. Just like a menu at a restaurant provide an appetizer, main course, and dessert menu for conversation. These conversations can increase in challenge/vulnerability and lead to building stronger relationships among your staff.

Read The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker

James Clear

The James Clear leadership style is about systems that support our habits and productivity. If we can design systems that promote our best work as leaders, on some level we can put things on autopilot. This allows the leader to focus on the hard work, the emotional labor of communicating vision, navigating tough conversations, etc.

3 tips to be a better systems thinker and promote positive habits

  • Inside-out thinking. Most people think about the outcome they want to achieve and build backward from there. Clear challenges us to start from the inside (at the level of your identity) and build out. If you want to complete more observations in a school year what does that leader need to believe? 
  • Make it concrete. A concrete example intentionally combines a behavior + time + location. Example: I will write the weekly newsletter after the Monday morning announcements in my office.
  • Two-minute rule. Instead of thinking about the large goal, break it down to smaller steps. This is my approach to writing books. Instead of thinking, “I have to write a 40,000 word first draft,” I just write for an hour each day. Between 2-3 months I’ve learned I’ll get to my word count after daily effort.

Read Atomic Habits by James Clear


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Ben Zander & Rosamund Stone Zander

The Zander school leadership style plays in the realm of possibility. What if” thinking represent the two most powerful words in innovation. Too often we drive poor results because we fear failure. Our approach becomes tight and rigid which leaves little room for curiosity and expansive thinking.

It is useful to consider a sports analogy here. 

Imagine you are playing for the New York Knicks (sad, I know). It’s the 4th quarter and your team is down by 1 point. You were fouled with 2 seconds left on the clock. At the free-throw line you can not only tie the game, but take the lead, winning the championship. 

What kind of athlete will sink his two free-throws?

Athlete A: who is short of breath, listening to a repeating negative loop in his mind, and stepping up to the foul line tight?

Athlete B: who is taking deep breaths and using a focused yet relaxed approach. He is visualizing himself sinking both free throws he has made in practice and in games a million times before?

This leadership style has influenced me in many ways. “Rule #6” and “Give an A” are both mastermind agreements.

3 tips to leading with possibility

  • Rule #6. There is no benefit in taking yourself too seriously. No one enjoys being around a jerk.
  • Give an A. What if you gave everyone an A? Like grace, they might not deserve it, but how would people react if you truly believed in them and saw what they did as a great contribution, an “A” effort?
  • Being the board. Don’t worry about others and where they aren’t pulling their weight. Focus on yourself and where you cause a challenge in the process, organization, culture, etc. Take care of what you can take care of — you.

Read The Art of Possibility by Ben Zander and Rosamund Stone Zander

Kevin Kelly

Kevin Kelly has a knack for predicting the future especially when it comes to technology. This leadership style embraces the potential of technology and how it can enhance education. Instead of being weighed down by the potential negative aspects, this leadership style creates the future in the present because of its radical use of tech in schools.

68 years worth of wisdom

Instead of sharing 3 tips about tech leadership, I want to point you to this article Kevin wrote reflecting on what life has taught him after being on this planet for 68 years. Here are a few of his insights I appreciated (and they’re all good):

  • Gratitude will unlock all other virtues and is something you can get better at. I’ve been using a gratitude journal for years. I believe it is a big reason I am a success today. That optimization of my mindset has had an incredible impact on my life.
  • Trust me: There is no “them”. Not only is this helpful in today’s divisive political climate, but when you think us vs them in a school setting (e.g. leadership vs staff), who wins? If you’re all on the same team, you’ll go much further.
  • There is no limit on better. Talent is distributed unfairly, but there is no limit on how much we can improve what we start with. One mistake I see school leaders make too often — wanting more resources, time, and (better) staff. What if instead you were stuck with the staff you had, and it was up to you to make them better? What would change in how you lead and support that staff?

Read The Inevitable by Kevin Kelly

Jerry Colonna

The Jerry Colonna leadership style is about emotional intelligence, specifically, radical self-awareness. The best leaders I know are courageous enough to look inside themselves to gain confidence in the strengths they bring to the table as well as to investigate how they hold their organization back. When a leader is doing the hard work of inner exploration, the capacity of her school soars.

3 tips to lead with emotional intelligence.

  • Strong back and open heart. This is the warrior stance. The strong back helps center your vision, getting stuff done, delegation, etc. The open heart allows you to care about your people and put your ego to the side.
  • Radical self-exploration. This kind of leader asks deep and challenging questions like, “What stops you from building the life you really deserve?”
  • Put down the script. Too often we are actors reading lines from a daily drama we don’t even want a starring role in. Just stop. Put down the script. Be the leader you want to be, not the leader you think you need to be.

Read Reboot by Jerry Colonna


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Seth Godin

The Seth Godin leadership style is about making a ruckus. I consider Seth a mentor and no other leadership style has influenced me more. Leaders who adopt this leadership style make meaningful change in education by leaping past the status quo. While some school leaders want to run their school like a Blackberry, a Ruckus Maker designs her school like the iPhone.

3 tips to be a Ruckus Maker

  • Be a purple cow. If you saw a purple cow driving through a rural area you would tell everyone you know because a purple cow is remarkable. Ruckus Makers do things differently.
  • Buzz before you know the answer. The secret to winning a game show is to buzz before you know the answer. It is risky, but if you play it safe and wait until you have your answer, it’s too late.
  • Sonder. This is the moment you realize everyone else’s life is as complicated and messed up as yours. This posture helps us lead with empathy, and people love an empathetic leader.

Read Linchpin by Seth Godin

Brené Brown

The Brené Brown leadership style is about vulnerability and authenticity. This leadership style gives you permission to not have it all figured out. Have you learned yet, that you don’t have to know all the answers? You don’t! Not only can people smell your BS, being inauthentic erodes trust, and trust is the foundation of any successful organization.

3 tips to lead authentically

  • Square squad. Everyone’s opinion does not matter. Identify a very select group of people whose opinion counts. Listen to them and only them.
  • Know your value. You are enough. What a beautiful reminder to begin each day with.
  • Curious cats. If we don’t have to have all the answers, that means we need to seek them out. Curiosity is the path to understanding whether that is a problem to solve or a challenging personality. If you’re curious, you’ll figure it out.

Read Dare to Lead by Brené Brown

John Doerr

The John Doerr leadership style is about goal setting and attainment. If you haven’t yet heard about OKRs, they are a school leader’s secret weapon. A number of my mastermind members have used OKRs with great success and this conversation with Orly Friedman talks about how she used OKRs leading her school.

3 tips to be a goal-oriented leader 

  • Ideas vs Execution. John Doerr says, “Ideas are easy. Execution is everything.” I love that and know it is one thing that separates me from everyone else. I execute. 
  • Conversations. In typical teacher debriefs the conversation is led by the principal who shares with the teacher what she observed and how she rated her performance. A goal-oriented leader flips it and challenges the teacher to set the agenda and lead the conversation around her goals and performance.
  • Transparent. OKRs are open and visible to all. When a principal tells her staff, here are my goals, and here was my progress, something special happens within an organization.

Read Measure What Matters by John Doerr


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Derek Sivers

The Derek Sivers leadership style is a creative leadership style. What I like about Derek’s approach is that it reminds of a beginner’s mind. He questions tradition and assumptions. 

When someone says, “It’s always been done this way.”

Derek replies, “Why?”

He doesn’t do this in an argumentative way, but to understand and to figure out if there is a better way.

3 tips to be more creative in your leadership

  • Be concise. Using the constraint of communicating clearly and concisely will challenge you to be more creative with your approach.
  • Care about your teachers.  If you are about your teachers more than you care about yourself, they will execute your vision. Note: This doesn’t mean put your needs last. On the contrary, self-care must be the priority. But after you have taken care of yourself, prioritize your people while at work.
  • Ideas as a multiplier. In the previous section, I mentioned how execution is everything. This is true with the caveat — ideas are the multiplier. Executing on an average idea will get you average results. Executing on a brilliant idea will change your life. Take the time to create the white space needed to dream and draft brilliant ideas.

Read Anything You Want by Derek Sivers

Ibram X Kendi

The Ibram X Kendi leadership style is about being an antiracist. The system of school can be racist in many ways. Start with looking at your graduation data, who has access to your “best” classes, and discipline data. Investigate your curriculum. To create equitable schools that see the value of every student, we must be antiracist.

3 tips to be an antiracist leader

  • Hiring. Does your staff reflect your student body? Work harder to have teachers of color on your faculty.
  • Restorative Practices. Adopt this philosophy to deal with disciplinary issues. Zero-tolerance and punitive discipline measures do not teach students to behave better. Students of color are more likely than their white peers to receive harsher punishments. That’s racist.
  • Include factual history. A whitewashed history that glosses over our complicated past isn’t helpful. Yes, Thomas Jefferson was the R Kelly of his time. No, slaves weren’t brought to plantations to do chores. A history that only provides the good and distorts the truth is unbalanced. If we don’t learn from our past, we are doomed to repeat it.

Read How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X Kendi

What should you read next?

Since you are interested in successful leadership styles in education, allow me to point you in the direction of some helpful articles.

22 of the best books for school leaders. Note: I curated a list of books outside of education so you can learn from the best and apply the ideas to the school setting.

An antiracist podcast playlist for educators. In this post, I share some podcast conversations I’ve had over the years that will help you create an antiracist school.

Success is like a mountain. You just read a post on successful leadership styles in education. This post is a good reminder to pause and consider what it is all for.


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