The Practice of Leadership

Blog Post
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July 13, 2020

The early childhood education field has been working diligently to advance itself as a competent and respected field of practice. To maximize these efforts, it needs to build leadership capacity. Because of insufficient leadership capacity, the field is less able to either create or seize opportunities at the program, community, state, and national levels. This three-part series argues the importance of elevating leadership development as a field-wide priority — and importantly, doing so in a manner that prevents further fragmentation and brings the level of intentionality and coherence needed to move forward. This series’ three blog posts spotlight the ECE field’s leadership capacity gap, elaborate on what it means to exercise leadership, and identify ways to grow the field’s collective leadership capacity.

Early childhood educators’ expertise level depends upon the depth of their knowledge base and the range of their practice skills. The same can be said when it comes to the effectiveness of those in the ECE (early childhood education) field who exercise leadership. It follows that addressing ECE’s leadership capacity gap depends on a leadership development system that helps adult learners acquire this knowledge and provides varied opportunities for putting that knowledge into practice.

To maximize the system’s impact, ECE’s leadership development infrastructure also needs to elevate the field’s level of shared intentionality regarding ECE’s future direction— one inclusive of the field’s program, community, state, and national aspirations. Yet as noted in our first blog post, no singular definition is available for leadership. New America’s Perspectives on Leadership in Early Education series highlighted the range of co-existing perspectives associated with the practice of leadership.

In part, this variety speaks to the intricacies inherent to exercising leadership: the nature of the leadership issue, its context, and the desired outcomes. When choosing from among possible leadership practices, these three variables and their interplay have to be taken into account. Consider the differences in how leadership is exercised in different contexts with differing intentions in these examples:

  • Organizational leaders coming together to achieve collective impact in their communities;
  • Pre-K, Head Start, and elementary educators who collaboratively redesign systems so children experience coherent transitions from pre-K to kindergarten;
  • An ECE center-based program administrator seeking to elevate a program’s recognized level of quality;
  • Early childhood educators who come together to improve the working conditions in their programs; or
  • Advocates attempting to pass new legislation at state and federal levels.

It’s also well accepted that personal attributes contribute to leadership effectiveness. These attributes typically encompass the ability to be at ease with uncertainty, emotional intelligence, perseverance, self-knowledge, and willingness to take risks — risk-taking, it should be noted, that frequently calls on personal and collective courage. Consequently, compiling an exhaustive toolbox of leadership practices isn’t possible, which is why continuous learning is an essential tool for effective leadership.

ECE’s Leadership Development Context

The ECE field is complex. Its fragmentation and absence of a collective purpose significantly contribute to this reality, which necessitates distinguishing between technical and adaptive leadership work.

As described in Your Leadership Edge: Lead Anytime, Anywhere, technical work is characterized by the availability of known solutions to fix the problem at hand, no matter how large or complicated. They are problems that can be resolved by individuals with the right expertise or by garnering the attention of someone with the right authority. A relevant example – given the times — might be switching to a virtual platform to offer an ECE training opportunity.

In contrast, adaptive challenges lack clear solutions, typically due to differences in values, beliefs, loyalties, and desired outcomes. Consequently, mobilizing stakeholders to work through their differences and open up to not-yet-recognized opportunities for realizing a shared purpose is essential. This frequently entails risks tied to loss of personal or organizational prestige, control, or deeply held beliefs.

Exercising leadership often involves some combination of both types of work, but their distinctions highlight the breadth of knowledge and skills needed for effectively addressing ECE’s leadership opportunities and challenges.

To date, ECE’s tendency has been to rely on a technical, “fix-it” approach to address its challenges, with an underlying assumption that a pre-existing solution is available. Seeing an issue as a “fixable” problem, though, has limited the field’s progress in resolving important adaptive challenges, such as enhancing the workforce’s qualifications and remedying equity issues.

For example, many roles within ECE involve a multifaceted knowledge base and complex set of skills – but the field, as well as policymakers, too often avoid grappling with defining and developing those skills, choosing instead to set easily-defined qualifications for those roles (such as a particular degree), even if the relationship between the qualifications and the needed competencies is tenuous. Bypassing the necessary adaptive work helps explain why the issue of ECE qualifications and degrees has been a heated, unresolved issue for decades.

Where Do We Go From Here?

As authors, we envision a leadership development system capable of helping bring coherence of purpose to the ECE field and developing a wide swath of leaders at the program, policy, community, and state and national levels — a system that would close ECE’s leadership capacity gap and advance the field’s future in a purpose-driven way. Obviously, collective effort is needed to craft this vision.

With the novel coronavirus disrupting the ECE field, the time is ripe for addressing its leadership capacity gap. To help encourage that exploration, our next and final post offers a framework for moving forward on what we believe represents an important and energizing field-building opportunity.

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