Administrative Leadership: What Is It? Why Is It Important?

by Teri Talan

April 4, 2016


Read more from the whole leadership blog series

Reading over the series of blog posts and comments on Whole Leadership, I am struck by the level of engagement the discussion has evoked. Clearly, deconstructing program leadership and exploring leadership essentials are topics that resonate. However, I am taking the discussion in a new direction—a consideration of administrative leadership. My hope is that this aspect or domain of Whole Leadership can be equally thought-provoking.

My colleague, Mike Abel offered this description of administrative leadership in an earlier post:

Administrative leadership is about orchestrating tasks (and often includes mobilizing people) to develop and sustain an early childhood organization. Successful administrative leaders are able to establish systems that protect and sustain essential operational functions to meet the needs of children and families. There are at least two important aspects of administrative leadership—operational leadership and strategic leadership. Operational leadership is accomplished through activities like hiring and supporting staff, overseeing budgets, and maintaining a positive workplace climate. Strategic leadership involves guiding the direction of an early childhood organization with the future in mind. Strategic leaders clarify purpose, inspire individuals to pursue a shared vision, and ensure that goals and outcomes are attained.

I really like this description for a couple of reasons. First, it makes it clear that orchestrating the work of teaching and learning, mobilizing staff to achieve child and program outcomes, and establishing systems to effectively run a healthy, thriving organization are indeed leadership functions. In our field of early care and education, these responsibilities are typically characterized as management functions and are less valued than leadership functions. Instead of thinking of this important work as management (and therefore less important than leadership), let’s claim it for what it really is—administrative leadership.

Second, the above description of administrative leadership includes both operational and strategic leadership dimensions. One of the responders to an earlier post asked about advocacy and where it fits in the Whole Leadership framework. I believe that advocacy is a part of strategic leadership. In my experience, effective administrative leaders engage in advocacy because they are future oriented; they want to have influence on external conditions that impact their programs, not just react to them.

Finally, I believe that pedagogical and administrative leadership are like the double strands that form the DNA helix. They are in a constant relationship to each other, separate but connected. The most qualified teachers cannot be effective in their work with children and families if their work environments (including supervisor support, opportunities for professional growth, decision making, collegiality, rewards and recognition, role clarity, task orientation, innovativeness, and physical environment) do not adequately support them. Administrative leadership is important because without it, pedagogical leadership cannot be sustained and children and families will be poorly-served.

Let us know your thoughts on administrative leadership. Do you agree that this is the right term? Is there a critical connection that needs further exploration between administrative leadership and instructional or pedagogical leadership? I am hoping you are provoked!

Dr. Teri Talan is the Michael W. Louis Chair and Interim Executive Director of the McCormick Center at National Louis University. She promotes action by state and national policymakers on early childhood workforce, leadership development, and program administration issues.


7 Responses to “Administrative Leadership: What Is It? Why Is It Important?”

  1. Kathleen says:

    In the hierarchy of business the rank of administration is beneath management, and leadership is deemed a key skill of a successful manager. While the article mentions management functions seen as less valued than leadership functions in early education and care, this may reflect a larger culture issue within our industry. Also, the term aligns with the term organizational leadership. Re-coining the phrase management to administrative leadership may not be the answer as it implies a lowered status. Our workforce challenges abound and we must be diligent in how we approach social change.

  2. qcc4kids says:

    I agree with your definitions with respect to the importance of Strategic and Administrative Leadership that when successfully combined, lead to a quality service delivery which clearly is one that is “Whole”. As the facilitator of monthly director support groups with broad and in depth topics, these meetings lend themselves to Strategic Leadership with expressed purpose, vision and goals for our providers. With many of your print resources, dialogue about Best Practices, business needs and outcomes to enhance this quality service delivery, McCormick is an integral part of the conversation across three regions. Hats off to your leadership for the ongoing efforts to share the latest research and trends to our industry, so often lacking in (real) support.

    Laura Newman
    Director, The GA Alliance for Quality Child Care, a program of Quality Care for Children

  3. Teri says:

    Kathleen, thanks for noting the difference in language in a business versus early care and education setting. What’s in a name? I provide training across the country on using the Program Administration Scale to improve leadership and management practices in early childhood programs. Routinely, I ask participants to define leadership and management. I get a consistent response that values leadership over management. It is from this experience that the visual model of DNA, with two consistently intersecting spirals, came to represent the importance of each function to effective program administration. Is management in this context (early childhood programs) the same as administrative leadership? What do others think?

  4. Teri says:

    Thank you Laura for your kind remarks about the McCormick Center. Your comment about strategic leadership being demonstrated by the program leaders participating in a regular community of practice really resonates with me. It highlights how strategic leadership is both an internal process (i.e., participating with staff in strategic planning to achieve the organization’s goals and objectives) and an external process (i.e., participating in a system-building effort to ensure that all young children have access to screening services in the local community). Two very different leadership roles, but in both situations, the leadership is future directed.

  5. MeggieSuzel says:

    In my graduate course work for an MS in Leadership, it was stressed that we lead people, we manage tasks. that said, I feel you would be hard pressed to find a Leader who does not also have as part of their job description tasks that must be managed, which may have nothing to do with leading people. That said, I like the idea of Leadership being the overarching umbrella and including Administrative Leadership as one of the sections of the umbrella canopy. Let’s face it Leadership is a complex role to fill no matter what field you are in. To that end, how do you keep a balance of the double helix going when lack of enough people to lead results in an imbalance in the sides of the helix? We recently experienced this for a period of years, and are now working our way back through it to a more even attention level to both sides of the house.

  6. […] last week’s Whole Leadership post, Teri Talan started us in a new direction, Administrative Leadership. My personal background is similar to many other program leaders in our field—I was a strong […]