Building Leaders for the 21st Century

by former Head of Upper School Colleen Welsh

Much has been written and discussed regarding the skills our students will require to succeed in the 21st-century workplace.  In the 2016 Job Outlook produced by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the top attribute sought by employers was leadership. Leadership is prevalent in many schools’ marketing materials and mission statements. Feedback from parents indicates that the development of leadership skills is an important goal for their child. It is apparent that employers, parents and schools all value the development of leadership skills. What becomes problematic is a shared understanding of what the development of these skills looks like and how you measure whether or not a school is producing leaders.

Let me begin by saying that I firmly believe that most of us have a very narrow definition of leadership. It is often viewed as the person at the front; the one directing activity, holding a certain title or being the loudest voice in the room.  It would be easy to package leadership development into a program or class, teach finite skills and graduate a classroom full of “Leaders.”  When asking if a parent is aware of a school’s ability to produce or teach leadership, I believe these are the markers looked for, and when absent, the parent often feels the school is lacking.

A student smiling at the camera with a face guard on for sports.

Pike school develops leaders.  While leadership opportunities do exist in defined roles such as student council, team sports, and student clubs, genuine leadership is integrated into what we do every day, in every space in the school, all the time.  Annie McKee, author, Senior Fellow, and Director of GSE’s PennCLO Executive Doctoral Program, has written and presented widely on the idea that the key to being an effective leader is developing one’s own emotional intelligence. The leader who will successfully navigate our world and the complexities of our institutions will be one who first, knows herself and second, understands others and is able to cultivate rich and meaningful relationships with them.

Two Upper School students working together in music class.

This work is part of Pike’s mission and is embedded in our classrooms, programs, and interactions with children and each other.  Leadership looks like the student who holds open the door for those behind him modeling how to see and care for others; it looks like the Pike player who bends down during a game to help up an opposing player who has fallen on the court; it sounds like the voices of students validating their peers’ perspectives and experiences during student lunch groups; it sounds like students presenting in assemblies about causes they care deeply about or informing their peers about issues that speak to them or performing prose that highlights the inequities that exist due to race, gender or sexual preference; it resides in morning meetings and Upper School advisory where students discuss conflicts and sort out how to resolve them, and learn about themselves and others; it resides in collaborative groups when students figure out how and when to listen, when to defend their views/ideas and how to compromise; it is modeled by students in the simple things like putting up chairs for a peer when they have to catch a bus or offering to cover their lunch duty so they can attend a session with a teacher;  it is modeled by teachers who create safe spaces in their classrooms where student viewpoint matters and respect is a shared value; it is modeled in the work done during EQ labs, professional development days and spontaneously shared laughter and tears in the hallways.

Students smiling for a photo at a Speech Team tournament.

Positive, emotionally intelligent leadership is critically needed in our government, educational institutions, religious organizations, and corporations.  Where are these skilled and impactful leaders going to come from?  From places like Pike School.

It cannot be developed from a program or a single course.  It must be a construct that is valued by and embedded in the daily life of an institution or community.  I am confident that our students will be change makers in their future schools, communities and workplaces because Pike School develops leaders – empathetic, self-aware, collaborative and positive leaders.