The North Star of Leadership Essentials

by Safiyah Jackson

March 16, 2016

Compass for Blog

Read more from the whole leadership blog series

On March 3, my colleague and friend Mike Abel released a blog post about three mutually important, yet entwined, paths to Whole Leadership—leadership essentials, administrative leadership, and pedagogical leadership. Today, let’s spark a dialogue about one of them—leadership essentials.

This is the definition offered for leadership essentials:

 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.” 

As I ponder this definition, I wonder how the term and definition resonates with you. Should we use another term? What’s missing from the description? What are your stories of leadership essentials? 

Here are a few of my ‘journal’ reflections of leadership essentials (LE) from March 3:

  • 8am: Two hours after reading the LE definition, one of my favorite quotes popped up in a another blog: “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” — John Quincy Adams This quote captures the essence of LE.
  • 11am: Five hours later, I was working with colleagues to plan details of the 2016 McCormick Center Leadership Academies. Specifically, we were organizing vision board and reflection activities. This effort shows we believe LE can be taught.
  • 8pm: I was enjoying one of my favorite pastimes—watching a theater production. I highly recommend the show The Compass. It left me thinking about how much our own ‘north star’ or compass is central to LE.
  • 10pm: During the post-show discussion a patron offered these words, “As an audience member, I’ve never helped write the story, so when I heard my comments used in the show, my interest piqued.” This made me think, if LE is about leading people, team-building, empathy, and cultural competency, we must create spaces for team members to contribute their ideas AND see them in action.

What are some of your quick reflections? Please share them in the comments section below.

Safiyah Jackson, manages a portfolio of leadership academies focused on program-level quality improvement, and change management trainings. She develops strategic partnerships to foster high-quality early childhood program administration practices.

10 Responses to “The North Star of Leadership Essentials”

  1. Jerry Cutts says:

    I really like these reflections and appreciate the opportunity to interact with them. This in itself reflects MCECL leadership values and the leadership of all of the whole organization’s talented staff.

  2. Safiyah says:

    Thanks for the comment Jerry. We are trying to spark a movement. 🙂 Remember the days before ‘whole child’ was common practice. Developmental domains were mostly seem as developing in isolation. Now we know, development, training, practice, and school supports require a more holistic. approach. It’s exciting to now consider how the idea of holistic, whole leadership might shape the future of early childhood leadership.

  3. Joy Bah says:


    I really appreciate your post because the title resonates most with me. In addition to the internal compass conception of the “North Star”, I’ve grown to associate the term with freedom. In my opinion, LE result in a greater degree of freedom, efficacy, creativity, and morality, of everyone involved, including the leader her/himself.

  4. Safiyah says:


    Thanks for your response. I agree with you that prior knowledge and background influences the learning experience, especially learning associated with leadership essential competencies. Last year we also started considering the influence of ‘change readiness’. We piloted a measure of ‘change readiness’ created by the email me at if you are interested. I can share what we have.

  5. Safiyah says:

    Karla, one other thing. I completely agree with you that a leader who creates space for team members to contribute their ideas and see them in action is a leader who is is confident, invested in staff and has the wisdom to know they don’t have to have all of the answers.

    I believe this is a key practice that represents the intersection of essential leadership, pedagogical leadership, and administrative leadership.

    Caring about staff and valuing their front-line experiences enough to invite them to shape administrative and pedagogical activities.

    What good example have you seen out there?

    • Karla Berra says:

      I’m not coming up with anything specific at the moment however we are always learning from our teachers. They live the job and have to make everything balance and work. They often are a great resource when we take a best practice and make it policy.
      Back in the day when I was a director, when I met with my lead teachers and there was an issue or challenge brought to the table, we solved it together and typically compromising and understanding the different perspectives were a big part of the solution.

  6. Safiyah says:

    Hi Joy,

    Your quote is awesome. –> “LE result in a greater degree of freedom, efficacy, creativity, and morality, of everyone involved, including the leader her/himself.”

    I’m going to share this with the Whole Leadership planning team.

    The way you articulate the result of LE makes me think we need a stronger term to represent this dimension of leadership. Does “Leadership Essentials” fully capture what we are talking about? Our team have struggled to name this very critical domain of leadership. Do you have any naming ideas?

  7. Joy Bah says:

    I can’t think of any names, but Maslow’s concept of self-actualization jumps out at me. In my experience, the most effective leaders with all the leadership essentials were able to help team members identify and accomplish their personal goals and aspirations with their work on the team’s project, making it more dynamic and spectacular than any one individual could have done alone. “Actualized Leadership”? I can’t think of any names, but we all know it when we see it and strive to be that type of leader.

  8. Tarah says:

    Joy’s comment about Maslow reminded me of a conference session I attended this past week. The presenter share a hierarchy of need that was created for design. What if a hierarchy of need was created for leadership? I’m not sure what that might look like. Maybe a hierarchy of need would not be the right approach for leadership. Maybe many of the leadership essentials are equally important. What are your thoughts on this idea of a hierarchy of need for leadership?

  9. Janice says:

    Reflection is so crucial and important and contributes to effective leadership. The past three years through the Race to the Top Early learning Challenge grant I have been supporting administrators in various settings. In our community we host a monthly gathering (PLC) for administrators which provides the space and time for individual and group reflection. Using a powerful question, quote, or article we model how these resources could be used in their program with staff and families. We have noticed that reflection has been a very powerful tool in shifting how administrators think and respond to situations.