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School Stories

Leadership is a Behavior

At the end of February, I once again joined my classmates from Columbia University’s Klingenstein Program at our yearly gathering at the National Association of Independent Schools Annual Conference. This year, however, the event took on a somber tone. Days before, the icon of Klingenstein, Professor Pearl Rock Kane, had passed away. Though the timing was shocking, leaving us all heartbroken, it seemed appropriate that we could all come together and honor her. Several graduates stood and acknowledged her as a connector, a catalyst, and a mentor. One reiterated the line that Professor Kane is most known for: “Leadership is a behavior, not a position.”
This quote has been an important reminder through my career. Whenever I have tried to take shortcuts and assumed that I could muscle my way through change simply because of my title, I have fallen on my face. The position means little, the approach means everything. I am indebted to Professor Kane for intentionally taking my classmates and me through a process—including classwork, practicums, and a capstone project—that helped us define our own leadership philosophy. I am forever thankful that Professor Kane encouraged us to reflect on how we wanted to be as a leader before we became too caught up in what we wanted to achieve. In a reflective assignment entitled “Theories in Action,” I detailed the principles behind my leadership approach, each based on readings from a range of authors such as Jim Collins, Rob Evans, and Peter Senge. Of the ten principles I put forth, several, including “Commit to curiosity to further my understanding of self and others” and “Cultivate compassion to encourage others to reach their unique potential,” focused on fostering trust and building relationships.
We talk much about the importance of building relationships throughout school communities. If we agree with Professor Kane’s premise that a set of behavioral principles promote effective leadership, we must dig deeper into what behaviors truly sustain relationships and lay the groundwork for impactful change. Recently, I have been listening to Dr. Brené Brown’s book, Dare to Lead. In her work, she differentiates between “Armored Leadership” and “Daring Leadership.” Again, many of the principles of “Daring Leadership” demonstrate practices that foster trust:
  • Practicing gratitude and celebrating milestones and victories
  • Modeling clarity, kindness, and hope
  • Cultivating a culture of belonging, inclusivity, and diverse perspectives
She also explains one other important approach, “Practicing integration—strong back, soft heart, wild heart,” which she describes as, “strong back is grounded confidence and boundaries. The soft front is staying vulnerable and curious. The mark of a wild heart is living out these paradoxes in our lives.” Though I can only aspire to this and many of her leadership guidelines, she does provide a helpful perspective on what it means to behave as an effective and authentic leader instead of hiding behind the position and protecting it at all costs.

When you believe that leadership is a behavior, it means that anyone can come up with a leadership philosophy and approach no matter their position. Over the past year, as we have designed a new compensation system based on what we most value in our faculty, we have considered the importance of instructional leaders and defined the traits of those who have been most successful, such as: 
  • Inspires and earns trust and respect from colleagues
  • Demonstrates commitment to the learning and development of others
  • Empowers colleagues to make decisions and fulfill commitments
Though it is impossible to list all the behaviors of effective leadership here, it is important to see how leadership is complex. It is not simply about ascending to some place on the organizational hierarchy, declaring victory, and then demanding change; it is about showing up fully every day, engaging with others, and raising your awareness of yourself and your colleagues so that you can act with curiosity, empathy and shared purpose. 

Two decades ago, when discussing her Independent School Magazine article entitled, “Farewell, Lone Warrior,” Professor Kane described an emerging form of leadership, as one “where power is shared, where work is accomplished in teams and where there is an opportunity for continuous learning.” Her words still resonate as an important reminder today. Though we do bid her farewell, we honor her not as a lone warrior but as an evolved leader who brought others together, fostered trust, and inspired authentic and competent leadership throughout independent schools. Thank you, Professor Kane. You will be dearly missed. 
A former classroom teacher, Josh joined the Graland faculty in 2002. He has a master’s degree in private school leadership from Columbia University’s Klingenstein Center, a master of arts degree in literature, and a bachelor of arts degree in English, both from Middlebury College. This is his last year as a Graland parent; daughter Ella is a member of the Class of 2019.

Graland Country Day School

Graland Country Day School is a private school in Denver, Colorado, serving students in preschool, kindergarten, elementary, and middle school. Founded in Denver in 1924, Graland incorporates a rich, experiential learning approach in a traditional classroom setting, emphasizing the development of globally and socially conscious leaders who excel academically.