True Leaders Have Their Own Style

December 4, 2017
Earl Hjelter
Earl Hjelter

Leadership in the teaching profession—in theory, such a simple concept; in practice, complex and multi-layered.

Ask practicing teachers what constitutes effective and inspired leadership and their answers tend to depend upon their ranges of experiences as students within school systems, their academic paths, their exposure to both positive and negative mentor models and, of course, on their expectations.

Most of us can list off the attributes that a strong and effective educational leader should possess: integrity, vision, character, intuition, personality, knowledge, ability, a sense of perspective, positive attitude and energy. Good leaders are expected to be good listeners, considerate of the views of others and someone able to navigate the proverbial ship through troubled waters. This is a rather high expectation, which is probably why so many well intentioned individuals fail to have those qualities. Good leaders do not just grow on trees. Often, they must age and mature in diverse employment and community roles just like wheat ripening in the fields.

During our evolution from student in the educational system into adulthood and later as role models to others, most of us cross paths with certain individuals who have most, if not all, of the attributes identified earlier. At the time when this confluence between model student and role model occurs, we may be well aware of such a wonderful opportunity to learn from such a craftsperson, or it may just dawn on us after the opportunity has passed.

During my career as a student, teacher and executive staff officer with the Alberta Teachers’ Association, I was fortunate to encounter a number of individuals who personified leadership and what it takes to be a teaching professional. Unfortunately, I cannot list each of them, so this article shall dwell upon three very significant but very different mentors of mine. Each exuded a totally different leadership style and management approach, but each of the three provided important lessons as I formulated my own approach to leadership.

During my third year of teacher education at the University of Alberta, Ted Aoki came into my life. Dr. Aoki was tasked with introducing students to curriculum and instruction methodology courses in the department of secondary education. Physically diminutive, extremely low-key and unassuming, Dr. Aoki had come from the proverbial school of hard knocks, being a product of the federal government’s World War II policy that transported Canadians of Japanese descent from their homes on the Pacific coast to camps in eastern British Columbia and Alberta. Rather than feel set upon by the discrimination that he had encountered, Aoki chose to become a model from which his students might learn the essence of leading others. Aoki was a true delight. His mantra was, “As teachers, we must try to discover the potential in each student and try to encourage greatness. Never be deterred.”

As my faculty advisor during two rounds of student teaching, not once did Aoki utter a disparaging word. If I was concerned that my teaching of a lesson was lacking or that I had failed to challenge my students, Aoki would remark: “There has been progress; you will get much better as you gain experience.” After a class room experience when I had tried so hard to involve the students but which was a disaster, Aoki’s advice immediately after was, “Failure is often the most revealing lesson of all.” Aoki led by example in the way he involved his university students in taking ownership of their learning. His humility in striving for perfection was infectious and never forgotten.

While teaching in Calgary a decade later, I encountered Jim McLellan, principal of Sir Winston Churchill High School. Dr. McLellan valued teachers who were devoted to their craft, who set high academic standards for their students, who were curious and good at handling difficult problems and who were prepared to engage the community when the need arose. I soon discovered that McLellan would cheerfully support any teacher he believed was acting in the best interests of students and the school, even if he knew that the teacher was dead wrong on an issue. Assuming that the transgression was not a “hanging offence” and after cleaning up the mess resulting from whatever had occurred, McLellan was more than happy to invite the teacher to the principal’s office, close the door and ask: “Just what were you thinking?”

After the appropriate tune-up had been delivered and the expectations of the school/district reaffirmed, the chastised teacher was free to escape. Having been on the receiving end of one such “clarification” as to how a professional should act, I came to appreciate that McLellan never broached the subject again.

Jim McLellan’s leadership style involved active engagement with students and staff in a direct fashion. He seemed to enjoy daily “walkabouts” during class breaks and while class was in session. Any student up to no good generally did not repeat after encountering McLellan. Little was said, but the message was effectively and quietly delivered.

McLellan was a stickler when it came to encouraging teachers to try new ideas in class and was highly supportive of clubs and activities that reinforced intellectual curiosity. As a debate coach at the school, I would notice McLellan loitering at the back of my classroom, on occasion. This seemed to occur during the preparation of debaters for some important inter-school tournament. One year, I was blessed with an exceptionally bright group of debaters. Like their debate coach, these students had soon gotten rather full of themselves. It seems that McLellan noted this hubris. As the debaters were finishing up a training session the Friday before a weekend tournament, McLellan asked if he could say a few words to the pride of Churchill’s debaters. Ever the master motivator, McLellan looked over this motley crew and remarked: “Good luck at the debate tournament and just remember that we are with you—win or tie.” McLellan slipped out the door and left me with a very angry and vociferous group of students. But, next day it had the desired effect in motivating these students.

When I joined the Association as a Teacher Welfare and Member Services executive staff officer, I came under the tutelage of Bernie Keeler, the legendary executive secretary. As chief executive officer, Dr. Keeler was a visionary perfectionist who quite rightly wielded his authority in a manner that I had never experienced. Keeler, or BTK as he was known, took the view that young staff officers should be tested and given a wide range of job roles and provided with as much responsibility in performing these tasks as possible. Supports would be supplied as required. One only had to ask. As a staff officer gained experience, Keeler monitored the situation and ensured these responsibilities were increased. BTK would make it clear that if you were asked to undertake a project or task or provide support systems for committees chaired by members of Provincial Executive Council, you would enthusiastically do the job with minimal or no supervision.

In short, BTK challenged staff to used their education, training, experience and smarts to do what needed to be done. Keeler viewed leadership as providing the master plan, communicating it to staff and dealing with any obstacles that might crop up. To many of us, Keeler was the venerable sage standing on top of the mountain directing traffic and defying those who would try to harm the education sector.

Keeler was great to work for since you always knew where he stood. BTK took it as his mission to ensure that you were challenged to the best of your ability. But, as a good leader, he was not one to hang a member of his staff out to dry. If a mistake was made or something happened along the way, BTK was very effective at providing a remedy.

One incident is still firmly ingrained in my mind. One August morning when I was acting as daily duty officer, the office phone rang. I picked up the receiver. “Mr. Hjelter, Bernie here! Have you read today’s Globe and Mail? If you have not, obtain a copy and come to my office … now!”

Oh my, I thought, this is not good. I went out, purchased a paper, read the front page and headed for BTK’s office. My memory of the conversation is relatively clear.

BTK: “Is there any reason why you are quoted in today’s Globe?”

Me: “Well, no one was around last week. A Globe reporter called. They were doing an article on recent changes to maternity leave and wanted an Alberta perspective since there has been some blowback. I agreed to do an interview.”

BTK: “I will say this just once, so listen very carefully. First, you are not authorized to speak on behalf of the Association since this is a controversial matter having political complications. It is beyond your scope. Second, staff officers should not need to be quoted on the front page of a national newspaper in this fashion. Third, your comments depicting those who oppose the granting of maternity leave as Neanderthals is completely unacceptable. You will cease making such inflammatory comments from this time forward. That is all.”

To Dr. Keeler, the matter was finished and I never heard a thing about it again. Message delivered. Lesson learned. Move on!

Three different educational leaders with their own distinct styles who were successful in what they did in very different circumstances. Each one was direct and effective for very different reasons. Each provided leadership when it was most needed.

Leadership requires leaders who are comfortable with their ability to earn respect and who can relate to those around them. Leadership involves making sound and strategic decisions, the ability to effectively communicate a vision, a willingness to learn from mistakes and put what’s best for their followers ahead of personal ambition and opportunism. The challenge for the teaching profession is to identify and empower those having such qualities of leadership.


Following a teaching career with the Calgary Board of Education, Earl Hjelter joined Association staff in 1986 as an executive staff officer in Teacher Welfare and Member Services. He became Teacher Welfare coordinator in 2000 and associate executive secretary in 2003. He retired from this role at the end of September 2008.