Effective School Leaders Are Like Thermostats

A MiddleWeb Blog

I recently attended a webinar hosted by the Council for Leaders in Alabama Schools (CLAS) on Ethical Leadership. The presenter, Dr. Ed Nichols, gave a lot of insight into what is and isn’t ethical leadership and how it differs from transformational leadership.

His message really resonated with me as he talked about creating a personal mission statement and being a thermostat instead of a thermometer (more on this later). So I decided to do a little more research.

As I read several articles on ethical and transformational leadership, I quickly realized that the two leadership styles actually go hand-in-hand. While ethical leadership is about your respect for ethical beliefs and values, transformational leadership is about change and innovation.

Although these definitions tend to differ, the premise behind each of the leadership styles should be blended to grow relationships that will in turn improve and strengthen a school’s culture.

Ethical Leadership

The three characteristics of ethical leadership are: to be the example, champion the importance of ethics, and communicate (What is Ethical Leadership?, Villanova University). While I personally would put effective communication first in my list of desired characteristics in a leader, all three are ideals that anyone should be able to get behind.

Ethical leadership is about leading from the front, putting others ahead of yourself, and thinking about the common good instead of what’s good for me. Leadership is by nature an act of service, and when we look at it as such, it is very easy to understand why studies in ethical leadership are becoming more prevalent today.

The United States Army, where my husband and I both served, has a leadership acronym that soldiers must learn. It lists the seven Army values: LDRSHIP (loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, personal courage).

These values are the epitome of an ethical leader, but they also lend themselves to the characteristics of a transformational leader. One must have personal courage to affect and encourage true change in a company, a battalion, or a school.

Additionally, by exhibiting loyalty, respect, and selfless service to others, a leader shows those around them what it means to lead from the front, one of the primary bases of all the ethical leadership definitions I found.

Transformational Leadership

While ethical leadership is focused on the common good, transformational leadership is about change and creativity. An article I read from the University of Florida listed four characteristics of transformational leadership – called the Four I’s – idealized influence, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, and individual consideration.

When a leader is considered transformational, they are instrumental in encouraging innovation and change. They motivate and encourage their staff to come up with new ideas and to take risks. They are looking to make something better than it was before.

Additionally, a transformational leader encourages professional growth and collegial debate. They look for ways to engage staff in a variety of methods that support expressing differing opinions and solutions to help stimulate future success in a company or school.

Transformational leaders should also be considered ethical leaders as they are looking for ideas that are going to grow and shape the future success of the whole. In our case as educators, that includes a primary focus on serving all students effectively so that they grow and prosper as people and citizens.

Thermostat versus Thermometer

During Dr. Nichols’ talk, he mentioned knowing the difference between being a thermometer and a thermostat. A thermometer, he said, reflects the temperature and reacts to its surroundings. It can only confirm what you most likely already know – it’s cold, hot, or mild.

A thermostat, on the other hand, regulates the temperature. It is always gauging the “feel” of the environment and adjusting to make the temperature “just right.” We usually set a thermostat to our desired temp and then allow it to constantly monitor and adjust as needed. A thermostat is proactive instead of being reactive.

When I heard this, I starred it in my notes. And as I conducted my research on ethical and transformational leadership, I had an epiphany.

In order to be an effective thermostat, I have to exhibit the characteristics of both an ethical leader and a transformational leader. I need to be the example while at the same time encouraging change for the greater good. I need to make sure that I work hard to keep the temperature and climate “just right” so our team – faculty, students and staff – have an optimal environment to grow our future success.

Ask any leader – from an assistant principal or principal to a military commander or CEO – and I have a feeling they would all tell you that the leadership job is hard and effective leadership is even harder.

But when we take the time to research and develop leadership styles that are true to our beliefs and values, while at the same time encouraging others to develop themselves and their own leadership styles, we become ethical and transformational leaders – we lead from the front and have a staff that is very willing to follow and do some leading of their own.

DeAnna Miller

DeAnna Miller (@DMiller0502) has been a middle school English teacher, instructional coach, and assistant principal during her 14-year career in education. She began her third year as an AP in the fall of 2020 and currently helps lead a K-6 public school in Enterprise, Alabama. DeAnna is an Army veteran married to a retired First Sergeant. They have three daughters, a son, and a new grandchild. She’s also a runner, avid reader and writer, and an “extreme Disney fanatic.”

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