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Leadership Without Authority

Today is the third annual Leadership Day, according to Scott McLeod, who once again is calling for anyone with a communications channel to add their thoughts to the discussion.


So, what am I supposed to write?

I’m not a leader and I’ve never held a leadership job (unless you count that short period many years ago when the president decreed me to be an “officer and gentleman”).

Leaders in education are people like superintendents and principals, not teachers and central office specialists who are positioned below them on the org chart.

However, I’ve also been around long enough to notice that in almost any school or department there are people who don’t carry the positional authority but still have plenty of people who follow their lead.

In more than a few instances, I’d bet that number exceeds those following the assigned leaders.

This concept of leading without institutional blessing is central to Seth Godin’s short but excellent book Tribes (the audio version of which still seems to be free).

According to Godin, a tribe is any group with a common passion. The potential leader of that tribe is not the person who is assigned to stand in front of them, but someone who shares their passion and enables the members of the group to connect with each other.

Without actually referencing Godin’s book, these are concepts we try to get across to the tech trainers we work with in our overly-large school district.

They haven’t been given the official power to tell anyone what to do and certainly don’t have the authority to spend money (something that can only be done by leaders, right?).

What they do have is knowledge, many ways of connecting people, and, most importantly, a common passion with the staff in their schools. A passion for helping kids learn and grow.

Unfortunately, too many don’t see themselves in the leadership role, as well as failing to understand that the tribe they could be leading extends beyond the walls of the building in which they work.

And that’s often true of educators in general.

We don’t see ourselves as leaders (at least not of adults) and simply accept the formal leadership structure of the educational system as the only one that matters.

That needs to change.

More teachers leading their own tribes, with members who share their passion for the various iterations of improving teaching and learning (both inside and outside the profession), would go a long way to improving education in this country.


  1. Sean Nash

    It seems to me then… that a smart leader would shift toward a decentralized approach with those they lead (either officially or organically) and embrace the natural power inherent in these “tribes” within their building.

    I certainly wouldn’t suggest that this will fix those toughest of supervisory “problems” that can be deeply embedded, but it can hardly be of more harm in such extreme cases.

    I think it makes more sense to “build leadership capacity” across the board as opposed to just identifying those who are the knighted “leaders.”

    Made me think….


  2. Jessica

    Your post made me think, as well. You say, “I am not a leader,” but I would disagree whole-heartedly. Whether you know it or not, you are leading others by posting your thoughts on your blog. I do not read Scott McLeod’s blog, but I’ve been reading yours, so I learned about Leadership Day. You are a leader.

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