Monday / April 22

Characteristics of Culturally Proficient Leaders

When asked about school leadership, most people in the school community focus on specific behaviors they observe in formal leaders, then judge how those behaviors measure up against what they believe to be appropriate behaviors. Some people prefer leaders who leave them alone, whereas others prefer leaders who are deeply involved with them in their classrooms. Everyone has a different list of specific characteristics. We prefer to broaden our vision to look at the overall qualities of leadership, particularly qualities that facilitate movement toward cultural proficiency. In this section, we provide a context for understanding the leadership at your school, a necessary step for developing culturally proficient leadership skills in yourself and in those with whom you work.

Leaders can motivate others to excel and to move in desirable directions or diffuse or otherwise block plans for change. In either case, contemporary researchers have found that effective leaders consistently show several key characteristics, whether they are in private businesses, corporate enterprises, or local school districts (Argyris,1990; Collins, 2001; Heifetz & Linsky, 2002; Marzano, 2003; Senge, Roberts, Ross, Smith, & Kleiner, 1994; Senge et al., 2000; Wheatley, 1994, 2002; Alvy, 2017; Carter & White, 2018). These characteristics include the following:

  • Taking responsibility for one’s own learning
  • Creating conditions for continuous improvement
  • Having a vision for what the school can be
  • Effectively sharing the vision with others
  • Assessing one’s own assumptions and beliefs
  • Understanding the structural, organic, and disruptive nature of schools
  • Leading through innovation, diversity, and collaboration

We have observed that culturally proficient leaders show these characteristics, whether they do so intuitively or as a result of intentionally studying how to lead effectively. Furthermore, culturally proficient leaders learn and use what they learn about themselves, those with whom they work, and within the schools they work.

Whereas management, or school administration, is the day-to-day process of getting work done through others, leadership is the process of inspiring others to work together to achieve a specific goal. Almost any book on school leadership emphasizes the importance of leaders having and communicating a vision, guiding the creation of a shared mission, and building strong school cultures (Argyris, 1990; Blankstein, 2004; Fullan, 2003; Gilligan, 1983; Oakes & Lipton, 1990; Ogbu, 1978; Owens, 1991; Reeves, 2008: Sizer, 1985; Wheatley, 1994, 2000).

Formal and Non-formal Leaders

Our experiences have been that when people speak of leaders, they are usually referring to formal leaders, those who have titles and official positions according them a certain degree of authority and coercive power. Although non-formal leaders have no official role assigning them the authority to direct a group, they have personal attributes, such as charisma, vision, and eloquence, often in combination with the leadership skills of communication, facilitation, and collaboration that cause people to listen and to take action. A non-formal leader can be more powerful than a formal leader, because the attributes of leadership are internally driven rather than externally conferred. Culturally proficient school leaders use effective collaborative and communication skills to engage non-formal leaders in ways that makes use of their knowledge and skills.

Successful superintendents and principals are adept at amplifying their efforts by working with teachers, staff members, students, parents, and other community members who are respected by their constituents. In this section, we focus mainly on formal leaders, secondarily addressing the key role of non-formal leaders in school. We do so because although we can attest to the tremendous influence of non-formal leaders, we believe that formal leaders should bear the primary responsibility for creating the changes described in Culturally Proficient Leadership: The Personal Journey Begins Within, 2nd Ed. The formal leaders of schools—namely, the superintendents, district office administrators, site-level administrators, and teachers—are employed to educate all children. How well formal leaders use the skills of the non-formal leaders, including working with students, parents, community members, and key staff members, is a measure of their success.

Know Your Why and Lead On

One thing is for sure, ready or not, when the first bell rings on opening day of 2018-19 academic year, the students and teachers will show up! Of course, you and the school will be ready. On the night before you return for your first day back, ask yourself these 3 questions,

  • Why do I do, what I do?
  • Why are equity and inclusion key concepts and actions?
  • Is this the school I would want my children (grandchildren, niece/nephew) to attend?

Now, that you know your why, get up and lead on! Best wishes for the best year ever for your school community and you.


Argyris, Chris. (1990). Overcoming organizational defenses: Facilitating organizational  learning. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Blankstein, Alan M. (2004). Failure is not an option: Six principles that guide student achievement in high-performing schools. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Collins, Jim. (2001). Good to great. New York: HarperCollins.

Fullan, Michael. (2003). The moral imperative of school leadership. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Gilligan, Carol. (1983). In a different voice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Heifetz, Ron, & Linsky, Martin. (2002). Leadership on the line: Staying alive through the dangers of leadership. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Marzano, Robert, J. (2003). What works in schools: Translating research into action. Alexandria, VA: Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Mathis, W. J. (2016, March). Research-Based Options for Educational Policymaking: Housing Policy, Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center.

Oakes, Jeannie, & Lipton, Martin. (1990). Making the best of school. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Ogbu, John U. (1978). Minority education and caste: The American system in cross-cultural perspective. New York: Academic Press.

Owens, Robert G. (1991). Organizational behavior in education. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Senge, Peter M., Cambron-McCabe, Nelda H., Lucas, Timothy, Kleiner, Art, Dutton, Janis, et al. (Eds.). (2000). Schools that learn: A fifth discipline fieldbook for educators, parents, and everyone who cares about education. New York: Doubleday.

Senge, Peter M., Roberts, Charlotte, Ross, Richard, Smith, Bryan, & Kleiner, Art. (1994). The fifth discipline fieldbook: Strategies and tools for building a learning organization. New York: Doubleday.

Sizer, Theodore. R. (1985). Horace’s compromise: The dilemma of the American high school. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Wheatley, Margaret J. (1994). Leadership and the new science: Learning about organization from an orderly universe (new ed.). San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Wheatley, Margaret J. (2002). Turning to one another: Simple conversations to restore hope to the future. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Written by

Between them, Delores, Raymond, Eloise, and Randall have coauthored well over a half dozen books, including Culturally Proficient Leadership: The Personal Journey Begins Within, Second Edition (Corwin, 2018). Check out their entire Cultural Proficiency library here.


A Professor of Educational Administration at Cal State University, Delores B. Lindsey uses cultural proficiency tools to make the learning arena more equitable. She is also a facilitator and cognitive coach.


Raymond D. Terrell has over 40 years of experience dealing with diversity and equity issues. He has been a Professor of Educational Administration and  Dean of the School of Education at Cal State L.A., as well as the  Special Assistant to the Dean for Diversity Initiatives at Miami University.


Eloise K. Terrell is a lifelong champion for social justice, equity and inclusion and has spent ten years supervising a progressive day care center. She has been active in voter registration efforts and managing election campaigns for candidates who held moral and ethical positions.


A Professor at Cal State L.A., and Interim Dean of Education at Cal Lutheran, Randall B. Lindsey has focused his time on the importance of diversity. He does so by working with colleagues to design programs for schools, city-wide agencies, and organizations.

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