Understanding Leadership  

Leadership is a complex task. This excerpt provides instruction to Head Start staff, Policy Council and board members on how to become effective leaders. This brief also addresses and discredits the five myths about leadership.


The following is an excerpt from Leading Head Start Into the Future.

Background Information
MOVER Qualities
Learning About Ourselves
Self Reflection
Continuous Learning
Values and Guiding Principles that Influence Decisions
Leadership Myths

Background Information

In recent years, Head Start programs have increased in size, scope, and complexity. To successfully address these changes, many Head Start leaders have developed various strategies and approaches such as extending half-day programs to full-day programs to meet the needs of working parents, realigning their staffing structures to provide families with better service, and collaborating with local school districts and public and private organizations to set up job search preparation seminars for parents seeking work. However, if programs are to deliver on Head Start's vision of providing excellent service for children and families, all Head Start directors, managers, and parent leaders must have the knowledge, skills, and commitment needed to guide Head Start programs effectively in a changing world. This process begins when directors, managers, and parent leaders understand the complex task of leadership.

This module explores answers to the following questions: What does it take to lead Head Start into the future? What are the essential leadership skills and behaviors necessary to move your program into the twenty-first century? How can Head Start leaders cultivate their talents as they prepare themselves and others to be effective leaders?

When considering great leaders, you may believe that such people have certain characteristics, traits, backgrounds, or abilities not possessed by the general population. Numerous studies have attempted to isolate the key factors that make a great leader or the factors shared among leadership styles used by great leaders.

However, these studies have clearly shown that no special formula, no certain set of traits or characteristics, and no predetermined style guarantees successful leadership. Anyone, regardless of his or her appearance, cultural background, educational level, or achievements, can become a great leader.

Sometimes our notions or fears affect our belief in ourselves. Notions such as leaders must be charismatic or leaders exist only at the top of the organization are myths. These myths are simply not true. What is true is that great leaders develop their potential by practicing leadership behaviors.

MOVER Qualities

What, then, are the qualities of effective leaders? One outstanding quality is their dedication to learning; effective leaders ask more questions than they answer and use this technique to instruct others. Rather than showing a person how to do something, they ask the questions that lead the person to discover the solution. The Head Start leader acts as a Mentor-guiding, coaching, supporting, and providing a safe environment in which others may grow.

Effective leaders engage in Outreach beyond the narrow confines of the unit or organization; great leaders build partnerships and collaborations. They have a clear idea of what is important, how to achieve it, and how to communicate enthusiasm to everyone about their vision.

Visionary leaders recognize the importance of inspiring others to be proactive. They want to teach others to anticipate future opportunities and the challenges of change. Head Start leaders can help families move from welfare to work by providing support to the families while advocating for them and influencing policy.

Exemplary leaders promote the Head Start vision for families that are transitioning in and out of public schools and other settings. The [Head Start Program] performance standards call for agencies to promote communication and initiate meetings involving Head Start teachers, parents, and elementary school teachers.

Strong Head Start leaders Empower others to believe in the vision and play vital roles in making it happen. They provide the tools and support for others to make decisions and succeed.

The Head Start Program Performance Standards assist leaders as they empower others toward individual learning, promote professional development, and support ongoing opportunities to acquire knowledge and skills. A structured approach to staff training and development is required, with academic credit whenever possible.

Finally, great leaders lead by example. They are Role Models, subtly teaching others who look to them for guidance.

This module explores the five essential actions that enable Head Start leaders to act as MOVERs and bring their Head Start programs into the twenty-first century: acting as a Mentor, engaging in Outreach, committing to a shared Vision, Empowering staff and parents, and being a Role Model.

Learning about Ourselves

1. Self Reflection

This module focuses on learning about ourselves. What do effective Head Start leaders need to understand about themselves? What other qualities or behaviors and skills do effective Head Start leaders use?

Leaders need to recognize that learning about themselves is an important first step for developing personal leadership qualities. People need to understand themselves and know who they are before they can lead others. To reach this understanding, they need to develop insight into themselves, examine their values and guiding principles, and have a solid notion of what is important to them and how to achieve their goals.

A willingness to learn and grow is essential for improving leadership skills. Great leaders take time to reflect. They are continually learning. A distinction of outstanding leaders is that they are never satisfied with what they have achieved; instead they continue to look for ways to improve themselves and their organizations. Head Start has always placed a high value on training and technical assistance; leaders internalize Head Start's attitude of quality improvement. They exhibit their willingness to expand their own circles of quality improvement and influence by taking in new information, new methods, and new ways to meet challenges. They constantly ask the question: How can we do this better?

The Report of the Advisory Committee recommends that all staff members should take the initiative and personal responsibility for their own professional growth and should be offered ample opportunities to grow. Great leaders show the way by taking the initiative for their own professional growth and act as mentors and role models for the staff and parents in the program.

2. Continuous Learning

By setting the example of being lifelong learners, Head Start leaders can effectively meet the challenge of continuous learning. They model continuous learning by expanding their knowledge and skills through advanced degree programs and intensive leadership development programs.

Conscientious Head Start leaders are aware that they must be informed about new information, trends, and issues that affect their programs. This means having information sources, connections, and networks; using the Internet and other technology to stay informed; and attending learning events and meetings. To look to the future, effective Head Start leaders must be comfortable with technological advances to offer the best sources of information and services to families and staff.

3. Values and Guiding Principles that Influence Decisions

Strong leaders make decisions based on their personal values and ethics and on their individual guiding principles. Effective leaders are aware of what is important; they are constantly reviewing circumstances and emerging issues in terms of their vision, mission, and organizational goals.

The [Program] performance standards articulate a vision of service delivery to children and families. Head Start's philosophy and core values are captured within the [Program]performance standards. Along with Head Start's philosophy and overall goal, the [Program] performance standards provide a foundation for program leaders. This foundation serves as a cornerstone for leaders to create their vision statements, clarify their values, and guide their decisions.

Exemplary leaders internalize the organizational philosophy and goals, and they carry them a step further. They know what guides their personal values, and they are committed to them. They can make choices from this strong foundation. They review their priorities regularly in light of emerging issues and changing needs, whether these issues surface from the community assessment, federal or state initiatives, or requests from families, children, and staff.

In summary, strong Head Start leaders meet current and future challenges by becoming lifelong learners. This continuous approach to knowledge, skill building, and self-development provides the tools required for successful leadership in a changing world.

Leadership Myths

Myth 1: Leadership is a rare skill. Everyone has leadership potential, just as everyone has some level of ability in athletics, mechanical tasks, and the arts. Great leaders simply develop their potential just as great athletes train and talented performers rehearse. Leadership opportunities are plentiful and within the reach of most people. You can be a leader in one aspect of your life while having a different role in another part of your life. For instance, a teacher's assistant may also be an all-star coach; a driver/custodian may also be a Boy Scout or Girl Scout leader.

Myth 2: Leaders are born, not made. Several renowned leaders in the area of education and child advocacy had very modest beginnings. They attained leadership positions through hard work and experience. The major competencies of leadership can be learned through practice and experience. This may not be easy, and there is no simple do-it-yourself guide to leadership. However, for those who have prepared themselves and are willing to put forth the effort, leadership can be learned.

Myth 3: Leaders must be charismatic. Charisma is not a prerequisite for success as a leader. Leaders come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and cultural backgrounds. There are no requirements for any certain type of physical appearance, health, personality, or style.

Myth 4: Leadership exists only at the top of an organization. Have you noticed that the most successful organizations have many people who are willing and able to assume leadership positions? Think about the programs and organizations in your community. Perhaps one or two stand out as strong models of quality. Many leaders may exist in those programs and organizations, not just the director or executive director. Do these programs and organizations have several staff members who are outstanding in their field? Strong leadership breeds leaders. All levels of programs and organizations have plenty of room for leaders.

Myth 5: Leaders control, prod, and manipulate. Leadership should not be seen as an exercise of power, but rather as the empowerment of others. Good leaders do not need to control and manipulate others because they have aligned the energies of the staff and community behind an inspiring vision. These leaders have breathed motivation into others so that they can create their own goals to fulfill the common vision. People should accept leadership, not be coerced into following it. Good leaders lead by pulling, not by pushing; by inspiring, not by ordering; by enabling people to use their own initiative, not by constraining or controlling them; by creating realistic goals, not by setting unreasonable expectations; and by rewarding progress, not by ignoring achievements.

"Understanding Leadership." Leading Head Start into the Future. Training Guides for the Head Start Learning Community. HHS/ACF/ACYF/HSB. 1997. English.

Last Reviewed: June 2012

Last Updated: November 13, 2014