Three Essential Elements of Educational Leadership

Industry Advice Education

People normally think of educational leaders as principals, superintendents, and higher education thought leaders in our schools, communities, and even businesses. However, educational leadership exists outside of the classroom, too, whenever someone in a position of influence works to guide teachers, students, parents, or policymakers toward a common education-related goal.

Dr. Karen Reiss Medwed, assistant dean of academic and faculty affairs at Northeastern University’s Graduate School of Education, provides an honest description of what it means to commit to a career in educational leadership—a career that embraces lifelong learning, hands-on experience, and inclusivity. She shares more about the three tenets of the field:

Three Elements of Educational Leadership

1. Lifelong Learning

Reiss Medwed says that a personal commitment to lifelong learning is vital to succeeding in an educational or organizational leadership role. She defines a lifelong learner as, “someone who understands that learning is a continuous process and someone who is going to bring their context into that experience.” Making lifelong learning a personal priority gives educational leaders the authenticity to share its value to others.

Whether your role is as a classroom leader, educational professional, non-profit coordinator, or corporate trainer, it’s important to understand that every stakeholder you will interact with is a part of a learning network in their own classrooms and organizations. By modeling the love of lifelong learning, it influences others to value that trait, as well.

Reiss Medwed shares that part of the working in the educational field requires accepting that no matter your title or role, you must continue to improve and develop throughout your career.

“Each of us is always a learner…we’re constantly going to be learning new things,” she says. The nimbler the learner, she adds, the better.


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2. An Ecosystem of Experiences

Reiss Medwed says that educational leaders should practice critical thinking, empathy, collaboration, and flexibility in a variety of work environments—and with a variety of people—in order to engage, lead, and effect change in a meaningful way.

For this reason, she says, Northeastern University emphasizes experiential learning as a core tenet of their EdD program, offering students the chance to practice these leadership skills in real-world situations that mirror the environments they’ll work in after they graduate.

“Experiential learning is a critical quality for leadership today,” Reiss Medwed remarks. She also stresses that increased self-awareness and an understanding of tools such as design thinking—two skills that come out of hands-on learning exercises—are essential ways to get “everyone to the table” when trying to effect change.

3. Inclusivity 

The third aspect of educational leadership is one that’s becoming more prominent in classrooms and companies everywhere—inclusivity. Reiss Medwed explains more about what inclusivity means for today’s leaders and what their role will be in bringing a more diverse perspective to learning:

“We speak a lot about inclusive prosperity, which is a way of looking at the world and saying, ‘How do I go about doing this in my organization so that everyone has an equitable seat at the table?’ I think that the language of inclusivity speaks to the organizational level of educational leadership because you’re trying to track that the improvements and the advances that you’re bringing are going to serve the broadest possible population and that you’re not going to be advancing one side without bringing everyone else along with you.”

Leaders intuitively know that being inclusive is the right thing to do, but it also has a positive correlation to the success of organizations. A recent McKinsey & Company study revealed that surveyed companies in the “top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.” This success metric was consistent for gender diversity, as well, as the top quarter in this group was 15 percent more likely to perform better than their respective industry medians.

As workplaces acknowledge the benefit of focusing more on diversity in hiring, there is an opportunity to recognize diversity in thought and experience among the teams already working in an organization. Recognizing and being inclusive of the strengths of your internal workforce, rather than continually pursuing external talent, can strengthen an organization. An equipped educational leader will know the best ways to bring people with all types of backgrounds and experiences together.

The Value of Educational Leadership

It’s easy to see how the embrace of lifelong learning and the noble pursuit of inclusive prosperity can change the classrooms and companies that educational leaders work in, but can it be a worthwhile pursuit beyond your day job? Reiss Medwed shares that there is a value in earning a doctoral degree that extends past the offices in which we work:

“An educational leader or organizational leader who is coming to their work with an understanding of inclusive prosperity (or social justice) is carrying with them some deeper insights into the ways in which all of our organizations are connected one to the other,” she says. “This interconnectedness is one way to make bigger changes in the world each day.”

One of the most effective ways to become adept at educational leadership principles is through a Doctorate of Education, and the program at Northeastern University is helping students achieve their most ambitious goals.

“We are developing scholar-practitioners which means students are experienced educators who already are in the field and are looking to change problems on the ground. As students are moving through their coursework and learning new knowledge and skills they are able to implement that within their organizations,” shares Sara Ewell, associate teaching professor for Northeastern’s EdD program.

The program artfully combines classroom learning with the experiential practice needed to meet learning communities where they are to provide the best outcomes for leaders and those they lead.

Is a Doctor of Education Degree Right for You?

Those considering a degree in educational leadership are equipped to lead as instructors in traditional schools, but there are also professional opportunities that extend far beyond those more “traditional” roles.

Reiss Medwed says that anyone interested in pursuing a more rewarding career should not look at the requirements of a doctoral program as a checklist of qualities that make you “right” or “wrong” for the program. Instead, she says that prospective students should ask themselves if they have “the passion and the drive” to thrive as an educational or organizational leader. Common traits of a future professional in this field include an insatiable curiosity to explore and learn, along with a desire to go out and change the areas in education that need improvement. Educational leaders aren’t generally satisfied unless they are working to promote positive transformation in their learning communities. Reiss Medwood elaborates:

“All of us have questions that we keep asking ourselves and are those nagging questions that keep us up at night. ‘How do I change this and make this better?’ Someone who has that question—and it just won’t go away—would make an excellent candidate for this type of program.”

Reiss Medwed’s says ideal doctoral candidates have the desire to find and establish a valuable solution for the problems they wish to change. She also believes that the following qualities signify a good candidate for a career in educational leadership and an eventual doctorate degree:

  • A passion for uncovering the answer to new questions they encounter
  • A willingness to be a novice and start something in an area in which they’re inexperienced
  • The self-regulation to carve out time on a week-to-week basis for the three years of the program

Reiss Medwed explains more about the personal drive that many students bring with them to the classroom, as well.

“You have to have a problem that you want to solve. You have to have something that you want to change for the better. You want to be passionate about that transformation. You have to be willing to know that you’re going to do things as a doctoral candidate in research that you’ve never done before in your field,” she explains. “And no matter where you are in life, you have to be able to know that you’re going to have to give yourself the time you need to actually learn something new. If you’re ready to do those things, you’re ready to get your doctoral degree.”

Certain Advice for Uncertain Change Agents

Even the most qualified students have concerns about their candidacy for the rigor of a doctoral program, but Reiss Medwed insists that being self-aware about your learning is the key to success—during their schooling and even after the degree program is finished. She cautions students not to think of a doctorate as a means to an end, but to consider it the next step in their lifelong learning journey.

If you fit the criteria for a lifelong learner and want to change the world, Reiss Medwed also gives this sage advice to those who still fear they aren’t poised to succeed:

“Don’t look over your shoulder [at other well-known professionals who are] getting a doctorate and therefore decide that you’re not worthy. Too many of the right people don’t come in and get their final degree. If you’re wondering if your problem is real enough—if you’re really going to be a good change agent—then you’re probably the right person to be going after this degree.”

What change do you want to see in the world? How can a Doctorate in Education make it happen?


To learn more about earning your EdD to advance your career in educational leadership, download our free guide below.


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