Educational Leadership: What Is It and Why Is It Important?

A colored pencil standing out among other pencils, representing the much lauded role of the educational leader
A colored pencil standing out among other pencils, representing the much lauded role of the educational leader

When it comes to the success of students and positive outcomes for whole families and communities, educational leadership can play a critical role. 

Communities and whole societies are changing at a rapid pace, creating a tremendous need for practical-minded leaders who can innovate new ways of learning and meet the needs of diverse communities. Whether in traditional school settings, nonprofit organizations, or large corporations, thoughtful and skillful educational professionals in leadership roles can make all the difference. 

Take Danielle Keane, a principal in the South Bronx, who dedicated herself to making the school “a place that people wanted to be” when the 2021 school year began. Throughout the summer, she hosted small in-person middle school graduations and facilitated “homecoming” sessions twice a week where families could come back to the school building and hear about safety measures, scheduled comedy nights and literacy classes. She hosted a movie night in the park and a back-to-school carnival. And when school started, she welcomed back 90% of the school’s students to in-person learning, well over the city’s average.

Educational leaders like Keane can transform whole communities through their meaningful work. 

If you’re looking to take on an educational leadership role, you must first envision what is involved. There are many key qualities and skills a leader must incorporate into the many situations of the workplace. Depending on your skillset, you will be eligible for different career paths, salary levels, and opportunities. 

No matter which academic or career path you choose, there are few callings more rewarding than that of a leader in education.

 

What is educational leadership?

Educational leadership is built on the premise of constructing and applying knowledge in ways that make a positive difference. Through collaboration and communication, professionals in educational leadership work with diverse communities and build partnerships to promote positive outcomes by setting and meeting transformative goals. 

While many educational leadership professionals have advanced degrees and can work in academic settings, they are practitioners who work in applied positions. By connecting theory to real-world projects and contexts, educational leaders take a comprehensive, evidence-based, relational approach to problem-solving.

 

Why educational leadership is important

The impact of educational leadership is felt throughout schools, nonprofits, and private sector organizations.

 

School Principals

A recent study by The Wallace Foundation reported that effective school leaders make both a stronger and broader positive impact on the schools they lead than research had previously shown. The study:

  • Estimates that replacing a school principal in the 25th percentile of effectiveness with one in the 75th percentile of effectiveness would result in approximately three months of additional math and reading learning gains each year for students in that school
  • Suggests that the impact of an effective principal on student learning is nearly as great as the impact of an effective teacher
  • Finds that the way school principals approach educational leadership has a direct relationship with school outcomes and test scores

 

Higher Education Administrators

Leaders of educational institutions stand to influence everything from curricular decisions to public perception of their campus. Studies have found that the approach higher educational leaders take in making various decisions can have a powerful ripple effect throughout their faculty members, students, and even the broader community. For example:

A university administrator showing off a campus to new students

 

Nonprofit Leaders

Studies show that nonprofit organizations with poor leadership negatively affect the staff working with them, the clientele they serve, and even the public at-large. Poor leadership in the nonprofit sector erodes public trust

Conversely, nonprofit executives who receive relevant training in the knowledge and skills they need in order to effectively lead an organization experience positive personal outcomes (such as their mindsets) and improve their organization’s practices. Likewise, nonprofit leaders who guide their organizations in accountability, communication, and advocacy can help bring about more positive public perceptions of nonprofit organizations. 

 

Human Resources Directors

HR professionals with a post-grad education degree are especially skilled at strategic collaboration with diverse audiences and stakeholders and promoting change across diverse organizational settings. Those abilities can promote meaningful change in human resources roles. 

Effective human resources directors can make a noticeable difference in company culture, employee morale, and even the bottom line. Check out just a few statistics from McKinsey on the benefit of good human resources professionals:

  • Organizations with human resources departments that facilitate a positive employee experience are 1.3 times more likely to report that they outperformed their organizational goals.
  • Companies with cultures that rank in the top-quartile of the McKinsey Organization Health Index post a return to shareholders that is 60 percent higher than median companies and a staggering 200 percent higher than companies that rank in the bottom quartile.

 

Educational leadership qualities

While anyone can strive to become a successful educational leader, there are some common qualities that are found in professionals who tend to gravitate toward educational leadership: compassion, vision, and perseverance. 

 

Compassion

The role of an educational leader is, at its core, a role that seeks to meet the needs of others. Rachael George, an elementary school principal, spoke to the role of compassion in educational leadership in “Leading with Compassion,” a blog post for the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) in which she discusses the impact of two colleagues in leadership roles:

“Creating bonds and intentionally fostering relationships with your community is the foundation for academic achievement. As three educational leaders, we strive to show genuine love for those in our community. That deep care is likely one of the reasons why our students have been successful, with each of our schools blasting through average scores on state assessments.”

Leadership roles involve goals and metrics, but they’re also about culture, creating a sense of belonging, and empowering people through connection. People who naturally come by compassion and seek to cultivate it in their lives have one of the key qualities of educational leaders—and, as George’s example shows, an emphasis on compassionate care for others often leads to positive outcomes and impressive metrics, as well.

 

Vision

Successful educational leaders tend to be people who can evaluate past challenges and policies where they work and develop a better way forward. Not only that—they can see, or collaborate in seeing, what it will take to get to that future place. Their ability to imagine and creatively plan, for example, can directly correlate to student success.

Take a look at a few examples of visionary leadership in an academic setting, nonprofit organization, and the private sector:

 

Perseverance

Educational leaders are faced with many challenges. They are often called upon when social and cultural issues arise, when injustice dominates current events, and when individuals and communities are suffering. Attempting to develop long-term fixes for systemic problems while responding to immediate, pressing needs can be a tightrope to walk.

That’s why perseverance matters so much for educational leaders. For example, DonorBox ranks “resilience and stamina” as the number one quality of a successful nonprofit founder:

Hardship is a daily reality for most nonprofit leaders. The Greater Good Science Center defines resilience skills as being able to minimize the impact of stress, which in turn helps us avoid burnout. Nonprofit founders need to be flexible, willing to adapt, and able to move forward despite setbacks— demonstrating persistence.

 

Educational leadership skills

Professionals who are trained in educational leadership are equipped with many of the top skills that employers are looking for in the modern workplace. Some of the most important educational leadership skills, which correlate with some of the most-wanted skills among recruiters, schools, and companies, are analytical thinking, collaboration, and leadership. 

 

Analytical Thinking

The World Economic Forum named “analytical thinking and innovation” as the number one skill for 2025 in “The Future of Jobs Report 2020.” As more and more data becomes available in every sector, from education to the corporate world, leaders with strong analytical thinking skills are more necessary than ever when it comes to asking the right questions of the data set before them. 

Consider just a few examples of how analytical thinking has made a positive difference in organizations led by educational leaders:

  • School administrators are applying analytical thinking to student data to improve their return on investment for technology purchases and to highlight best practices that lead to better student outcomes. For example, a charter school administrator analyzed data and discovered that one biology teacher specifically outperformed the other biology teachers in the school. So the leader designated that teacher as the biology mentor for all charter schools in their system. 
  • Human resources directors are cutting through their cognitive biases and experiencing new insights in existing company cultures as they apply analytical thinking in minimizing bias and increasing fairness.
  • Community college administrators find that good data analysis helps them to make more informed decisions and present compelling evidence to key stakeholders.

an EdD student studying to become an educational leader and transform her community for the better

 

Collaboration 

Educational leaders often spend a great deal of time speaking to others—whether those they are serving, those who work within their organizations, or community partners. By collaborating with diverse audiences and stakeholders about organizational research, practices, and theories, educational leaders can make collaborative strategic plans that lead to positive outcomes. 

Here are some examples of how educational leaders have fostered collaboration to create positive effects:

 

The top considerations of an educational leader

Professionals in educational leadership roles will perform a multitude of tasks based on their specific positions, which is to say that a superintendent’s day may look quite different from a human resource director’s day. But, if we peel back the layers just a bit, we’ll see that many of their decisions and approaches are likely shaped in similar ways and based in similar issues faced by educational leaders, including:

  • How to answer questions of equity, ethics, and social justice 
  • What it looks like to bring about solutions to complex problems
  • The way to make a positive difference in a community or culture
  • How to make and measure a positive impact in a given setting, person, or group

 

Equity and educational leadership

One of the highest callings of educational leaders is fostering diversity, inclusion, and equity among the people they lead. As a practitioner, the role of the educational leadership professional is not one of theory or distance from real communities. As people who work with people, educational leadership professionals are embedded every day in real-world circumstances that deal with questions of social justice, ethics, and equity.

Educational leaders may pursue greater equity for the people they serve through community partnerships, advocacy, or educational opportunities.

 

Educational leadership jobs

Careers in educational leadership range from small schools to huge corporations. Educational leadership often refers to administrative positions in schools, school districts, and universities. Many educational leadership professionals work as principals or assistant principals, instructional coordinators, and academic deans. These individuals help to meet the needs of students, families, and teachers so that each person has the opportunity to reach their goals and experience positive outcomes. 

But, as we’ve discussed, school settings are not the only place where educational leadership is important. Educational leadership is also put into practice in the corporate setting, such as in the case of human resources directors, chief learning officers, and trainers. In the nonprofit sector, educational leadership professionals work as program directors, executive directors, and community organizers. Educational leadership professionals who are interested in policy may work as education policy analysts for school systems, in think tanks, or for lobbying organizations.

 

Educational leadership doctoral programs: PhD vs. EdD

For those who are interested in educational leadership programs, there are several options. Some people will go with a masters degree, others a PhD, and others an EdD. While professionals with master’s degrees can have successful careers in educational leadership, those with doctorates will experience more open doors and greater potential for the careers they want. 

So then, what are the differences between a doctorate of education and PhD in education? Before we get there, let’s note the similarities. Both degrees

  • Are terminal degrees (the highest a student can go on that academic path)
  • Focus on enhancing professional knowledge in various environments
  • Make candidates more marketable and increase their salary potential
  • Benefit graduates’ employers
  • Prepare candidates for roles in administration, supervision, training, development, curriculum, instruction, and teaching 

From that common ground, some differences emerge. Let’s take a look at what they are. 

 

PhD 

A PhD usually pursues a teaching career in academia and does first-hand research to help inform best practices. This allows candidates primary exploration of their field.

A PhD is likely to take on the role of an academic in higher education. PhD candidates are likely to publish original research in academic journals and present research papers at conferences.

 

EdD

An EdD program is designed to develop scholarly practitioners for applied positions in real-world settings. The research is oriented around making a local impact and developing a better understanding of a local context. An EdD will feature a substantial core curriculum in leading an organization, ethical leadership and social justice, and implementing organization change. 

Because of its emphasis on real-world application, the EdD leads to more opportunities for its graduates. While PhD graduates will largely work in research and theory, which may limit the workplace opportunities for them, EdD graduates can apply their leadership knowledge in nearly any setting. It’s difficult to think of any workplace that wouldn’t benefit from visionary leadership, an emphasis on meaningful change and transformative partnerships. With an EdD, leaders can bring about impactful change in schools, nonprofits, government agencies, and businesses that support whole communities.

 

Become an effective educational leader with an EdD from Marymount University Online

Are you ready to foster strategic collaboration, empower meaningful change, and innovate in ways that make a direct, positive impact in schools, communities, or organizations? If so, an EdD from Marymount University Online may be an ideal fit for you.

The degree program is designed for working professionals who want to bring elevated skills to their current organizations or find new opportunities for leadership. With no GRE requirement and a path to completion that’s less than three years long, active professionals can prepare for educational leadership while maintaining their current personal and professional responsibilities. 

Imagine your future in education administration, corporate leadership, nonprofit management, or policy analysis. You can take a step toward that future today. Prepare to use transformative leadership to promote change across diverse instructional and organizational settings. With our rigorous, practitioner-focused degree, you’ll be ready to effect change that matters.

Learn more about the EdD from Marymount University Online.

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