Deconstructing Whole Leadership

by Mike Abel

March 3, 2016

Read more from the whole leadership blog series

Last week, Teri Talan opened this blog series on Whole Leadership by inviting you to engage with us in a dialog to explore the “multi-faceted and nuanced” nature of early childhood program leadership. We first began this exploration last May at Leadership Connections, the McCormick Center’s annual national conference, by discussing the concept of instructional leadership with our Advisory Board. During that spirited discussion, we began to see the need for a clarifying framework for early childhood program leadership to support professional development efforts, research, and policy initiatives.

I would like to continue the blog discussion from last week by introducing some terminology to describe overarching areas (perhaps these could be considered domains, categories, or types) of whole leadership for early childhood programs. My colleagues and I have identified three areas of leadership (each including leadership competencies), which could be incorporated into a whole leadership framework—leadership essentials, administrative leadership, and pedagogical leadership. Here’s my take on it. See what you think.

Leadership essentials are foundational competencies necessary for leading people that are expressed in personal leadership styles and dispositions. These essential competencies include awareness of self, others, and the profession; communication and team-building skills; cultural competence; and ethical conduct. Essential leadership qualities include courage, empathy, vision, inspiration, authenticity, and passion. Leadership essentials are often developed through reflective practice. These qualities are embedded in everything the leader does and are necessary for both administrative and pedagogical leadership.

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.

Pedagogical leadership is about supporting teaching and learning. It includes instructional leadership—supporting classroom teachers in their key role of implementing curriculum. But, pedagogical leadership is a broader term that encompasses many roles and functions in learning organizations. For example, pedagogical leadership impacts teaching and learning by establishing organizational norms of continuous quality improvement. Pedagogical leaders influence children’s learning by fostering family engagement, ensuring fidelity to the organization’s curricular philosophy, using data to evaluate the effectiveness of the learning program, and meeting standards established to optimize learning environments.

Perhaps considering these ideas raises additional questions. I want to challenge you to ask yourself:

  • How does the concept of leadership essentials relate to other aspects of the whole leadership framework?
    • Should leadership essentials be viewed as a third overarching area of the whole leadership framework?
    • Are leadership essentials core competencies embedded within administrative and pedagogical leadership?
    • Are leadership essentials the foundation on which administrative and pedagogical leadership is built?
  • What is missing from the descriptions of leadership essentials, administrative leadership, and pedagogical leadership?
  • Are there other overarching areas of whole leadership to consider including in the framework?
  • How should we refer to the overarching areas that constitute whole leadership? Domains? Categories? Types? Something else?
  • What does a comprehensive framework that captures the competencies of early childhood program leaders look like?

Your perspective is valuable to this process. As we emphasized in last week’s blog, we would like you to share your thoughts about whole leadership. We need your help in creating a comprehensive framework that captures the competencies and functions of early childhood program leaders. Please join the conversation by posting a response in the comments section to this blog post.  Also, please join the conversation on social media using #WholeLeadership. By any mode, we are eager to hear from you.

Mike Abel is the Director of Research and Evaluation at the McCormick Center for Early Childhood Leadership at National Louis University. His background is in early childhood program leadership, teacher education, and applied research. He has worked on a number of state and national projects related to systems development and highly vulnerable children and families. He served as the Missouri AEYC-MO President and as a member of the NAEYC Affiliate Council Executive Committee.

12 Responses to “Deconstructing Whole Leadership”

  1. Judy Jablon says:

    Hi Mike – I notice a connection between my keynote at Leadership Connections last spring, the PI stance and the parallel process and thinking embedded in the link between whole child and whole leadership. I appreciate the three categories you have offered as an extremely helpful framework for helping leaders organize their thinking. Regards – Judy

  2. Joanna says:

    Mike and Teri – This is engaging! I’m thinking….. Thank you! Joanna Lower

  3. Samantha says:

    Does advocacy have a place here?

  4. Mike Abel says:

    Judy, thank you for making the connection between whole child and whole leadership and the relevance of Powerful Interactions as we continue the dialog about leadership competencies. We would be interested in exploring how PI practices differ between pedagogical leadership and administrative leadership.


  5. Mike Abel says:

    Joanna, please share your thoughts. Thinking out loud will enrich the discussion and help all of us process this complex subject. Look forward to hearing from you.


  6. Mike Abel says:

    Deborah, thank you for highlighting that pedagogical leadership and administrative leadership require different competencies. The demands for each type draws on distinct and sometimes overlapping skill sets.

  7. Mike Abel says:

    Regina, thank you for your suggestions of dividing leadership essentials into two areas. I will certainly share your comments with the Whole Leadership Committee at the McCormick Center as we work on developing a framework. One of the aspects we are most interested in and challenged by is where the different types or domains intersect—how to they overlap and do the competencies shift within each category.

    Best, Mike

  8. Mike Abel says:

    Samantha, good point to bring up advocacy. It seems to me that advocacy would be an activity in all the areas of the framework—leadership essentials, administrative leadership, and pedagogical leadership. There are different issues associated with each that need addressed in the public discourse. Thank you for bringing this to our discussion.


  9. Jack Wright says:

    Mike, I would add personal integrity and openness to your categories of excellent leadership. Leadership is trusted when they are true to themselves, especially when issues can be divisive. Openness has to do with line-staff, those dealing directly with children, feel that discussions are shared with them and their input is clearly taken into account. Administrative decisions are too often just handed down.

  10. Mike Abel says:

    Jack, I so appreciate your adding to our working definition of essential leadership. Authenticity (true to themselves) and openness (or transparency) are certainly important and essential elements. I’m excited to see how this conversation is shaping the idea of Whole Leadership. Thank you for contributing.


  11. Tarah says:

    Hi Regina
    I’m interested in the idea you presented. “Leadership essentials area could be broken into two areas: essentials for leading the organization (staff) and essentials for personal/professional development.” And your concern about leaders pushing personal/professional development to the back seat. Could you explain more about what “essentials for leading the organization (staff)” looks like. What skills would be included in this area? And explain what you mean when you talk about “essentials for personal/professional development”. What skills would be included in this area?
    Love your comments and insights. Looking forward to hearing more from you.

  12. Interesting discussion-As I read the different definitions I think emotional intelligence is what you are referring to regarding self awareness of self and others in leadership essentials. You may want to include that language.