Effective 21st Century Leadership: Working Yourself out of a Job

During an excellent leadership course I took through Parkland School Division called, Exploring Leadership, we talked a lot about the idea of effective leadership. Many questions came up such as: What attributes does an effective leader have? What outcomes would demonstrate effective leadership? What steps can a person take to become an effective leader? The discussion was rich, and the answers varied, but over many sessions, a common theme formed. The secret to effective leadership is, (drum roll please) working yourself out of a job. Let me explain.


Learning in the 21st century has changed, so it makes sense that the concept of leadership has changed as well. Let’s begin by looking at our learners. Shannon Lake Elementary does a nice job of describing the attributes of a 21st Century Learner:

  • A LEARNER is one who is engaged, resilient and seeks to understand
  • A THINKER is one who analyzes, makes connections, inferences, asks questions and transfers knowledge
  • An INNOVATOR is one who sees possibilities and generates original ideas with value
  • A COLLABORATOR is one who excels at working with others to create new understanding
  • A CONTRIBUTOR is a citizen who participates in the local and global community 

I also found a great visual on a blog created by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

We know that our learners are much more than vessels, in fact, the entire goal of education has changed. Parkland School Division explains that “our purpose is to prepare, engage and inspire our students to be their best in a quickly changing global community.” In order to fulfil this mission, the jobs of educators and leaders in education have had to adapt as well.

An article by Jeff Dunn on the Daily Genius identifies 16 characteristics of the modern teacher.

Like the 21st Century Learner, the 21st Century Educator is a constantly evolving role filled with learning, re-learning, collaboration, innovation and so much more. So how can one become an effective leader in such a complex world? The answer, as I alluded to, is to work yourself out of a job. And by that I mean build capacity. We have probably all heard that effective leaders surround themselves with people that are smarter and more capable than themselves. I would argue that leadership isn’t only about procuring a dream team, but recognizing the dream team you have right in front of you. Effective leaders inspire others around them to be the very best they can be. They do this, not by demanding it, but by modelling the behaviour, forming authentic relationships, practicing collaborative goal setting, and cultivating leadership within their team.

The best analogy I can think of is the job of a parent… specifically parenting a toddler, who is going through the “I can do it myself” phase, trying to put on their shoes, when we are already 10 minutes late. I could just take those shoes and put them on for her, but that’s not my job, not really. My job is to support her in a way that cultivates her inner leader, the voice that says, I can do this, and the imagination that will try 17 different ways to get it done. My job as a parent is help her find her gifts, and let her fail and brush her off, and to fail myself and brush myself off. While some days I wish I could just tell my 2 year old spitfire exactly what she needs to do and when (and have her actually listen), I know that my job is more complicated. I need to support her in a way that allows her to grow up to become a future leader, a leader that puts on her own shoes and helps others to learn to put on their shoes or perhaps even invents new shoes for those that can’t.

Like being a parent, a leaders job is never really done, but the modern picture of leadership looks less like this:

And more like this:

In summary, an effective 21st Century Leader builds people up, helps foster open communication and community, models the attributes he or she wishes to see flourish, cultivates the strength and diversity of the team he or she is lucky enough to be working with, and shares and encourages the opportunity to be a leader. Effective leaders won’t actually work themselves out of a job, but they sure will try.




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