Four pillars of successful leadership

Simon Hennessy

English expert at Atomi


min read

Leadership manifests itself in a multitude of different forms, and individual fields have unique demands on those they ask to lead. However, just as noteworthy is the manner in which certain attributes will make you a good leader regardless of who or what it is you are leading.

Chris Lowney, in his 2012 book Heroic Leadership, outlines four pillars of success that, if employed simultaneously, will provide the very best of foundations for leadership. These four traits - self-awareness, heroism, ingenuity, and love - are, he argues, the key to any leader’s success.

Teaching is a very different kind of leadership from that which former priest and investment banker Lowney would have practiced, and of course has its demands specific to the vocation. But when we examine these attributes in the classroom context, there is a strong case to be made that Lowney’s four pillars can provide the backbone to a teacher’s success as a leader of their student’s education.


Counter-intuitively, self-reflection is pivotal to leadership of others.How can one effectively lead others if they are not entirely aware of their own values, methods, and effects upon others?

The benefit of self-awareness has to do with a teacher’s scope for improvement in their role as leader and educator. Consider the results of research conducted by Deborah Schussler, Lisa Stooksberry, and Lynne Bercaw into the relationship between teachers’ dispositions towards their teaching history and their effectiveness. The researchers had this to say on their results:

“Candidates with the greatest capacity to unpack their assumptions and who therefore possessed the greatest awareness of their dispositions demonstrated (a) a propensity for questioning the how and why of their thinking and actions, (b) a balance between focusing on students and the self, and (c) an adoption of multiple perspectives.”

The results would suggest that self-awareness opens doors to a teacher to vary and modify their approach in pursuit of improvement as an educator. A leader who is able to evaluate their own leadership has the potential to improve in a way that a leader who never questions theirs is not; the self-aware teacher, therefore, is the more likely to be the better leader of their classroom.


The first thing to acknowledge when considering heroism is just what is meant by the term in this context. Lowney does not suggest great leaders must necessarily emulate the likes of Luke Skywalker or Hercules by tackling some monstrous foe in mortal combat. Rather, heroism here is to be understood best as the employment of constant personal motivation, as a method of motivating others.

Lowney’s argument runs as follows; a good leader is constantly striving with conviction towards improvement and growth, and emanating belief that such improvement is not only possible but necessary to their very sense of being. Such a leader’s conviction and belief will inspire those they lead to follow their example and strive themselves for such lofty goals. The leader is, therefore, effective in proportion to the amount of self-belief and determination - or heroism - she can project.

Sound familiar? We are all used to hearing people tell us that their favourite teacher was the one who had the greatest genuine passion for pursuit of their subject, and it is a sentiment we have probably expressed ourselves. So much of leadership is the setting of example. In the classroom, setting an example of “heroic” pursuit of knowledge and skills acquisition is the laying of a trail of inspiration that students will eagerly follow.


Of course, an attitude of constant improvement needs to be paired with the external tools available to make it a reality. Lowney channels Jesuit phraseology when he describes the ideal leader as having “living with one foot raised”. Such an individual is constantly ready to adapt to, and implement, a new innovation that might be of benefit to his charges.

Education is an ever-evolving field, with new resources becoming available all the time. Utilising and mastering them all as they arise is, of course, a tall order for any teacher. However, with research suggesting that the teacher is the most important factor in the success or failure of a new classroom resource (Torrens, 2018), attempting to have “one foot raised” would appear to be the best approach a teacher can take to the ever-innovating landscape.

This ingenuity requires more than simply an open mind.The global research initiative Innovative Teaching and Learning (ITL) found, in 2014, that teachers who scored highly on their innovative teaching practice index were much more likely to have actively undertaken professional development activity within the last two years - be that studying or observational visits to other schools.

The picture that emerges is one where active, self-generated efforts to achieve ingenuity in the acceptance and use of new teaching resources and methodologies affords you a flexibility and skill that reinforces your position as a useful, forward-thinking leader.


Last but far from least is the notion of love as key to leadership. Lowney posits that a leader who has the respect, admiration, and affection of her charges is best placed to get the best from them. Furthermore, she is best placed to achieve this if she herself holds her charges in similar regard.

Let’s not kid ourselves. The greatest motivator of all, regardless of whatever field you are operating in, is the power of personal relationships. We can work hard for our pay cheques, our career development, or even for the abstract sense of achievement of numerical superiority over the mean of our profession. But it is the people with whom we work - if we care for them, and they for us - that provide the strongest motivation.

The distance of superiority must of course be acknowledged and respected - students are not friends the same way that your peers are, and to treat them as such undermines the classroom hierarchy. But they are people, and treating them as such - with affection, encouragement, and genuine warmth - is to treat them as the kind of leader who will push them above and beyond what even they considered themselves capable of. In other words, to love is to lead.

Embracing leadership

Teaching is a nuanced, multi-faceted role, but what cannot be ignored is that those who choose to be a teacher also necessarily choose to be a leader. Bringing your own personality and authenticity to your leadership will fortify it, but grounding the practice in solid principles is as good a place as any to approach such a daunting role. Embracing self-awareness, heroism, ingenuity, and love as these principles is to embrace the best chance of delivering the best guidance for the students who look to you as their leader.


Lowney, C. (2012), Heroic Leadership, Loyola Press

Schussler, D., Stooksberry, L., and Bercaw, L. (2010), Understanding Teacher Candidate

Dispositions: Reflecting to Build Self-Awareness, Journal of Teacher Education

Innovation for Educators: Meeting challenge with change in the contemporary classroom, Torrens University Australia, 2018.
Innovative teaching and learning: From research to practice, Innovative Teaching and Learning, 2014.

Liked what you read? Check out more great articles:

Partner School Story: Aquinas College QLD

Overcoming our anti-technology bias

Making your student an agent of knowledge, not a recipient


Published on

September 13, 2019

What's Atomi?

Short sharp videos and lessons

Engaging, curriculum-specific videos and interactive lessons backed by research, so you can study smarter, not harder.

Interactive quizzes and revision

With tens of thousands of practice questions and custom revision sessions, you won’t just think you’re ready. You’ll know you are!

Super smart features

Study skills strategies and tips, AI-powered revision recommendations and progress insights help you stay on track.

What's Atomi?

Engaging curriculum-specific videos

Short, curriculum-specific videos and interactive content that’s easy to understand and backed by the latest research.

Continuous assessment tools

Active recall quizzes, topic-based tests and exam practice enable students to build their skills and get immediate feedback.

Powerful intelligence

Our AI understands each student's progress and makes intelligent recommendations based on their strengths and weaknesses.

Try the ultimate study resource for high school

Start empowering your classroom today