Learning to lead – How to think, act and work like a leader
The Sector > Quality > In The Field > Learning to lead – How to think, act and work like a leader

Learning to lead – How to think, act and work like a leader

by Karen Hope

November 10, 2023

When we think of leadership it is often assumed that people in leadership positions have attained a certain level of professional knowledge and skill. However, it is often the case that within the early childhood profession, beginning educators with varying levels of qualifications who may not have been working in the profession for very long can be expected to take on leadership roles and responsibilities. Often, beginning teachers are propelled quite quickly into leadership roles.


Leadership has become a critical topic in the sector and the importance of getting it right is evident in both the way it benefits the profession broadly and the impact it has on the quality of programs delivered to young children and their families. Research suggests that early childhood educators are reluctant to take up leadership positions in part due to the working conditions as well as a general reticence to add the role of leader to their workload. 


It is not hard to appreciate that educators feel mostly underprepared for this role and pre-service qualifications often offer little in the way of preparation for it, when you consider that one in five early childhood educators often plans to leave the profession within the first twelve months due to issues such as:


  • Experience not matching expectations
  •  Intellectually, emotionally and physically demanding work
  • Undervalued
  • Drowning in paperwork
  • Low salary


So why step up and perhaps out of your comfort zone, after all, it is much easier to let someone else do it? 


Hopefully, you will do it because by stepping into a leadership role – whether that role is ongoing or related to a specific job or task, you show an understanding of the power of the collective and of the importance of shared responsibility to effect change for the common good. Leadership should be a communal concern and by taking on this role you are acknowledging the need for collective efforts from all, to transform workplace culture, to ‘lift’ co-workers up to be the best versions of themselves, to design and deliver programs for children and families that speak to quality and collaboration and perhaps, more importantly, to think and work with big aspirations. Inspiring yourself and others. Being a leader means to think big.


It is perhaps who you are as a person and your personal attributes that are at the core of whether you can take on a leadership role or not. If you think about someone you have been led by or a leader that you might aspire to be like, it is likely that they might say that it was their desire to make a difference that leads them down their path. It is this desire to make a difference that will both define and illuminate this role for you too.


Leadership does not have to be confined to people because of their positional or hierarchical status, experience or qualifications. There are many people who can take up a leadership position in early childhood services. Successful leadership in early childhood is a matter of communication more than anything else – especially listening. Leadership in early learning should be exercised in a climate of reciprocal relationships where the leader seeks to act with others rather than exert power over others. This speaks to collaboration, participation and empathy.


So, what are these attributes that we might apply to good leadership? The book Leadership in Early Childhood The pathway to professionalism (Rodd, 2013) said that credible leaders can be considered as:


  • Honest
  • Forward-looking
  • Inspiring
  • Competent (Rodd, 2013, p 29).


Rodd goes on to say that research has consistently found that these four attributes are consistently identified with effective and authentic leadership so, this gives you a great place to start.  


Effective leaders are also courageous in their beliefs and convictions and they recognise that strong authentic leadership is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes time, effort, patience, persistence and above all it requires teamwork. A leader without a team is just someone taking a walk!


As you make a start of your leadership journey remember that success is no accident. It requires work and lots of it. It can however be exhilarating and affirming.


Taking on any new role of responsibility can be hard at first, however, a foundation based on the following will support you on this journey:


  1. Stick to your 3 Ps – Philosophy, Pedagogy, Practice. Your values and beliefs around these three things will guide and support your thinking and decision making every single time!

  2. Find a leadership mentor. Good mentoring will strengthen your development and growth. This is an integral relationship that is learning-focused and a strong focus on a mentoring culture within your early learning service can lead to increased career satisfaction and staff retention. Mentoring should always be a career-long part of your professional development. It is hard to change or improve on beliefs and practices if you were not aware of them in the first place and the use of a professional portfolio is a method of reflection that gives you time to think and evaluate.

  3. Start a professional learning portfolio. Educators need to be lifelong learners. Keeping a written or visual record of your steps allows you to go back and re-visit your thinking and can provide the stimulus for new thinking.


Paulo Coelho, the Brazilian novelist, once said: “The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion”, so gather a group of people who are every bit as funny, smart, vibrant, curious and motivated as you and get started.


Karen Hope Consulting was established in 2014 and provides a disruptive approach to professional development workshops and teaching that aims to challenge dominant discourses and taken for granted practices. Karen is an early childhood consultant, associate lecturer and freelance writer who has extensive experience in a broad range of services within the early childhood care and education context. 


Karen’s consultancy practice and writing are strongly influenced by the Reggio Emilia project and this is reflected in her work and writing as a point of reference, resource, inspiration and difference. Karen writes and delivers work that is specific to each individual service developed in consultation with you. The delivery of sustainable professional development that results in real change is a key feature of her work. She can be contacted by email or via website at: [email protected] and www.karenhopeconsulting.com 




Rodd, J. (2013). Leadership in Early Childhood: The Pathway to Professionalism Open University Press.


This piece originally appeared on the Storypark blog and has been re-shared here with permission.


To read it in its original form, please see here.

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